Podcasting meets TV editing with this killer documentary

Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina of Joke Productions share how they blend the art of tv editing and podcasting with the show Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer.

Image source: Discovery+.

One of the largest unsolved murder mysteries in American history is the subject of a new documentary anthology and seven-part podcast, Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer. The investigative series features exclusive interviews from the decade-old crime when eleven bodies were found on the coast of Long Island. The unique hybrid approach to storytelling allows for an in-depth look into why exactly the case remains unsolved, investigating everything from police corruption to cover-ups.

Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina who run Joke Productions are executive producers and the wife and husband duo behind the series. In this Q&A, the team discusses getting their start outside of Hollywood, and how Adobe Creative Cloud allows them to focus on the creative and craft a nimble story.

How and where did you first learn to edit?

Messina: It was the late nineties and I had landed a regular acting job on a Nickelodeon show called Kenan and Kel, but it paid so little I was still delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut. At the time, my then-girlfriend, now wife, Joke was working as an assistant for producer Gale Anne Hurd, but we knew we wanted to run our own company together. I convinced Joke to let me take a crack at learning to edit, and literally downloaded the free trial of Adobe Premiere 4.2! It was pretty different back then! I did all the online tutorials at the Adobe site, learning how to use transitions and what an “L-cut” was. Then the two of us launched a little business editing actors’ demo reels out of our shoebox, one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. The great thing about it is that I was editing every style, from comedy to horror and even unscripted footage from people aspiring to host TV shows, so I learned to be versatile early on. I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been able to work in so many different styles of TV over the years.

How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?

Messina: Especially in this era of COVID-19, setting up our projects to be lightweight and versatile is crucial. We break our projects down by episode, as we usually have several editors (often myself included) working on an episode at any given time.

There is also one large “master project” that our post team keeps updated and organized and that includes all media, synced files, multi-cam clips, etc.

In addition, we have a separate Premiere Pro project just for music, and that’s organized using smart folders to break things up by category. The upside to that is we only have to include one instance of a music cue in the project, but it can show up in multiple smart folders. For instance, a cue can appear in the Action Folder and also in the Suspense Folder if it works for both, without including two or more instances of the file in the project.

We do all of our graphics in After Effects. Whenever possible we hire a designer to come up with the look of the graphics, and create templates for us in After Effects. That way they can spend their time on great design, and we can make the million or so graphics we need for the shows internally. When there’s no budget, Joke and I usually design the show graphics ourselves.

We save all Premiere Pro and After Effects project files and auto-saves in the cloud, which allows for easy passing off and sharing of projects, and often use the “Export Selection as Premiere Pro Project” feature to share a single sequence. We’ve not yet stepped into Adobe Productions or some of Premiere Pro’s more advanced project sharing features, but are looking into it. For now, especially with editors working from home due to the pandemic, we’re using lots of clone drives to get the footage back and forth. We looked into online collaboration options but at the end of the day residential internet is just too unreliable (just ask anyone with Spectrum in Los Angeles.) With so many people working from home, cloning drives was just an easier option.

When it comes to actual workspace, for me it changes moment to moment. When I can be at the office I have a setup with two monitors and a TV, Yamaha HS8 speakers, and I usually have Premiere Pro and After Effects running at all times. Since my wife and I have had to split duties with the home-schooling of the kids, I now do most of my editing/graphics/whatever else on my laptop, a newish Macbook Pro, storing media on a couple of 4TB Samsung flash drives, listening on Sennheiser HD 280 headphones. Sometimes, if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll use my iPad as a second monitor. Most of the time it’s just the laptop.

Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.

Messina: After all this time, it’s still that call when the network says, “Green light!” It never gets old. Getting the news that we were going to get to make this huge project, with both TV and podcast elements…it’s just something that fills you with gratitude. Knowing you can hire the artists who’ve grown to be your friends over the years and work together for the better part of a year is something special.

Fincioen: We got the green light for Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer on my birthday in quarantine, so it did make it extra special. We’ve had so many great creative moments on this one. It’s an investigative project so whenever we get a new lead that pays off, book a great interview, get a great reveal, it’s just dynamite. We are storytellers through and through, and chasing the story, finding it and then crafting it for an audience is a series of moments that make the hard work all worth it. We are super proud not just of the podcast series, but of our 2-hour documentary as well. It just really came together and it’s a story we’ve been trying to tell for the last 3 years. So we are very happy to share it with everyone March 9th on discovery+.

What were some specific post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?

Our newest project, Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer, is unique because it’s a hybrid TV series and podcast. In addition to ten hours of documentary television content we have an additional 35 hours of podcast content — it’s a lot! The podcast isn’t just a “let’s talk about the show” but rather a deep dive of the cases we’re covering, using both documentary audio recorded for the podcast itself but also audio from the TV portion. At first we were editing the TV show in Premiere Pro, as well as preparing the podcast media in Premiere Pro, but then sending the podcast to another, non-Adobe software package for editing and mixing. It was a nightmare. We were constantly getting new footage and audio, updating projects, and then trying to get audio out for the podcast edit. It was pretty early on — about episode 4 — that we had the light-bulb moment to just do everything in Premiere Pro. The sound mixing tools were strong, all our media would be in one place, and updating projects would be a breeze. Now we create projects per episode that include all TV media plus all podcast recordings, and make use of the Essential Sound panel in Premiere Pro to get everything sounding good. In the end we use the highly under-rated Audio Track Mixer in Premiere Pro to put some light multi-band compression on the master output.

This allows us to have more time for storytelling and shaping the edit, without ever having to worry about “locking” the episode. It’s especially important since these are active cases we’re covering on the show, and big things can happen at any moment that require us to dive back in to the edit. While it would be great to have the time and budget to do a full, separate mix of the final podcast episodes, it’s incredible to keep everything in this “live mixed” state where we can add any late-breaking story points. You don’t have the time you’d need to go back a bunch of steps in a typical post-pipeline. When all is said and done, it’s far more important to get the story right than to worry to death over every little audio tech-detail most people will never notice. Especially since Premiere Pro has such great audio tools built right in.

What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them? Why were they the best choice for this project?

We’ve been an all-Adobe house for awhile now. As mentioned, Premiere Pro has become the central hub for both the TV series and podcast. After Effects is our go-to for all show graphics. Photoshop is another important part of the puzzle, especially when it comes to highlighting or blurring specific sections of police evidence and crime photos. We run our final podcast episodes through the loudness matching utility in Adobe Audition to make sure they’re at the same level and that they land within the ranges laid out in the Apple Podcasts best practices document. Not on this particular series, but on others where Joke or I am designing the show logo ourselves, we’ll use Adobe Illustrator so that we can provide the network a vector image for print. Believe it or not, we still have Adobe Encore around because we need to make the occasional DVD. Part of our deliverables also include production stills so Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are at the ready. And if you want to get very particular, Adobe Acrobat is where we get to read all our investigative discoveries as our FOIA requests usually come in pdf format.

What do you like about the Creative Cloud suite?

Messina: For me, it comes down to this: As an executive producer, editor, and director, when I hire people I want to hire artists who can focus on being creative. They should never feel like they’re being put in a box. Adobe Creative Cloud is built for artists, and allows for unique workflows that aren’t constrained by traditional “pipelines.” When we were coming up in TV, before we had our own company, it was a living nightmare to make a change to a TV episode late in the game. “Nope, already in mix.” “Nope, in online.” A new amazing development in the story? “Too bad.” With Adobe Creative Cloud we’ve been able to create a workflow that allows us to give every second possible to story and edit — even if it means me personally creating a patch from my home bedroom when we’re less than a week out from airing. Some tools are built for pipelines. Adobe’s tools are built for creatives.

What’s your hidden gem/favorite workflow hack in Adobe Creative Cloud?

Messina: I can’t believe the audio track mixer in Premiere Pro doesn’t get more credit. It’s great. I love creating busses and aux tracks for the music and carving EQ holes just once. For anyone on a tight deadline, especially if they have some mixing experience, Premiere Pro is capable of great audio mixing without leaving the program. And if you’re scared of the audio track mixer, the Essential Sound panel is super user-friendly and has more than enough to get you a pro sounding mix. Another tip is using an adjustment layer with the Transform effect as a great way to have a nice, continuous scale over a series of photos without having to keyframe each one individually. You can reuse that adjustment layer all over the show. One more sound design tip in Premiere Pro: reverse sound effects with reverb on the end can be really useful. I like to nest a sound effect, open the nest and reverse the audio, and then add some empty space at the end of the nest’s timeline. Back in my main timeline, I add the studio reverb, extend the length of the nest, and now I’ve got a reversed sound effect with a strong sync-point and a nice little tail on the end of it.

Who is your creative inspiration and why?

Messina: I can’t help it — equal parts Steven Spielberg and John Williams. The sense of wonder both manage to create in everything they do inspired me to move to Hollywood and get in this crazy game. As someone who makes TV and film and composes a little music myself for our shows, it’s hard to beat that one-two punch of inspiration.

Fincioen: This will sound corny but inspiration is everywhere. Our team is so good and continuously puts in great work that inspires me to be better. There is so much great content being produced that pushes the envelope and gets us thinking outside the box. But truly, as we work in documentary, it’s the everyday people going through extraordinary things with grace and determination. We tell their stories because they are the heroes.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?

Messina: How do you “chase the Hollywood dream” when you’re a kid from the middle of nowhere? I’m from Cleveland, Joke’s from Belgium — neither of us had any Hollywood connections. So how the heck do you get through the door and get anyone to take you seriously? A friend of ours, TV producer and now poet Troy DeVolld said it best in his book One Hundred Poems About Los Angeles — “A little delusion and a big dream is sort of all it takes to make it sometimes, honestly.” We were definitely deluded and dreaming big from day one. Just know it’s Hollywood’s job to tell you “no” and it’s your job to work hard and prove them wrong. It’s a long journey, but that means you have plenty of time to develop your own voice, improve your skills, and truly grow into being the artist only you can be. For those who’d like a little concrete direction on working in documentary and unscripted television, we run the podcast Producing Unscripted that teaches people how to break into, work in, and create TV shows for the unscripted world. With well over 100 episodes, you can learn everything we have to share in a few weeks, and listeners have the chance to pitch us their projects if they like.

Fincioen: There have been a lot of challenges, and challenging people, along the way, but if you’re doing it right, you learn from those circumstances. As with anything in life, what helps is to find your tribe. To find those people who support you creatively, guide you through your missteps, and inspire you to get better, every day. If you love this work, but find yourself hating your job, it may be that you’re not with the right people. Even some of the most famous creators, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, they all have a group of people around them, excellent in their own field, that they keep working with. My advice is to keep finding people that raise your game and keep those around that bring out excellence in you.

Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?

Messina: It might sound cheesy, but my favorite thing about my workspace is getting to share it with my wife, Joke. In this hectic business, it’s an absolute blessing to spend these hard, often endless hours with someone you love. Some people think it’s crazy to work with your spouse, but I don’t know any other way. We’re coming up on our 20-year wedding anniversary, and I can’t wait for the next 50. Aside from that, I’d have to vote for the John Williams sheet music my wife and kids got me that hangs on my wall, my Millennium Falcon iPhone holder, and my Star Wars mouse pad.