3 Body Problem

Four editors worked for more than a year to bring the scope of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem into a compelling storyline. They discuss VFX, controlling massive leaps in story, dealing with hundreds of pages of notes PER EPISODE, and much more.

Today on Art of the Cut we’re talking with three of the editors of Netflix’s sci-fi series, 3 Body Problem. With us for today’s interview are Anna Hauger, ACE, Michael Ruscio, ACE and Simon Smith, ACE. Katie Weiland, ACE was also an editor on the show but was unable to join us.

Anna’s credits include Westworld, Station Eleven, and Watchmen.

Michael’s credits include the TV series True Blood, Altered Carbon, Six Feet Under, and House of Cards.

Simon has been on Art of the Cut previously for his ACE Eddie-winning work on Chernobyl and his ACE Eddie-winning work on Andor. His other credits include the feature film, Spaceman.

This series is based on a book. Did you bother to read the book? Did you feel like you needed to for your interview? Anna?

HAUGER: I actually came in as an extra set of hands, as did Michael. I got hired when I was on a vacation in London, actually, and I didn’t have time. I had an interview and a week and a half later I was cutting.

What do you think about the prospect of what you should do if you had the time? Do you do the research or do you feel like the research will get in your way?

HAUGER: I do do the research. I was an editor on Station 11 and as soon as I even heard inklings that I might be considered for the job, I read the book right away. I think it always gives you kind of a leg up and knowing where the story might be going.

RUSCIO:For me, I read the book and I had a little bit more time because there were rumors that this was going to happen because episode five was so huge and the UK team got overwhelmed, so there was a bit of lead time.

So I had that time to read the book and it felt important to understand the context of it - understand how much scientific science fiction is involved in this particular book - and what they were trying to do to adapt it to a television series where they needed to add humanity basically in the form of human beings, additional human beings who weren’t in the book.

So, given the time, I always like to do a lot of research and find out what the source material is as well as the script.

SMITH: I love to read the books. I like reading. I like watching stuff. If there’s a way that I can tell my wife that I’m doing it for my job, even better! If I have to play a game for my job even better.

I did read the book and enjoyed it, but also one of the aims of this series was taking this quite dense science book and making it accessible to Netflix’s hundred million audience that is out there.

I think they did so well with that, on the page in the scripts they did that and in the eventual product making something so accessible that I don’t think, even with these wild ideas, I don’t think people get lost or confused. I think there’s real heart and soul to the characters.

It’s definitely worth us explaining how the series ended up the way it did with the editors. There’s another editor who’s not here, Katie Weiland, who is amazing. She started the series on episodes one and two and she’s busy with showrunners this week on a new show, so she couldn’t be here.

But she started this in November of 2021. That’s how long ago they started shooting. I came on board when they were shooting episode three in January of 2022. We were meant to split the series half and half. So Katie was doing four episodes.

I was doing four episodes and by the time we got to the end of episode four, we were so behind and dealing with so many notes and so many versions that Michael and Anna came to our rescue and were able to each take one of these big episodes mother it. I started in January, 2022.

My last day was in March of 2023. We did 173 main unit shoot days. We did 23 additional photography shoot days. I thought it was over in March, 2023, but it wasn’t. I think Michael carried on even after that.

RUSCIO:After March the molecules split again. Basically Anna took over to finish up episode three and she had six and she had seven and eight. I sort of adopted one, two and four and I had five.

And then as the days went on into 2023, after we had actually finished the entire show, everything was mixed, locked, delivered, there was a new scene added for episode one, which was shot in the middle of December.

Basically I was on set for two days, and had to make a cut the next morning, deliver a cut that evening to the director and the producers, do notes quickly, get it to Netflix even faster, and then basically lock it within a week.

Whereas the balance of the show took over a year to lock this particular sequence, which was sort of an amalgamation of a couple versions of the same sequence. Then we mixed the show in January, then we are off.

SMITH: We’re talking a two year process. No! More than that! November, 2021 through to December, 2023, with four editors working on the show. It was a mammoth thing. As you said, Steve, I love Michael’s episode five so much. I think it’s so brilliant, that episode. And I love that I got to work with these guys as well.

Did you watch the other people’s episodes?

SMITH: I didn’t watch Hannah’s episode until it was on TV. I hadn’t seen episode six, but the others I’d kind of seen.

HAUGER: I definitely watched all the episodes. The first day I came on, I think that’s the first thing I did: watched everything that was available to be watched - the director’s cuts.

I think by that time you guys already had director’s cuts of one through four and you were working on producer’s cuts when Michael and I came in. So we actually had pretty complete episodes to watch up to that point.

RUSCIO:The way these particular producers work, they work through revisions alphabetically, actually.!

Avid timeline from an episode of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem

SMITH: Yeah. Version A, version B, version C. The reason they do letters is to kind of get away from the idea that version five would be better than version four. They’re just different.

So you can always say, “Well let’s use this bit from version F and this bit from version C” because they don’t put iterative numbers on. I think I got up to version T or something of one episode.

So we’re all working remotely. I would get just a Word document of notes on the previous cut. So I had about 20 different Word documents that I went through for episode three. I totaled up the pages of these Word documents and it’s pretty mad: It’s over 500 pages of notes I just from the producers on this show. And I’m guessing, these guys on their episodes, it was the same process, right?

Anna, PLEASE tell Simon that you only had two pages of notes. I dare you!

HAUGER: Yeah, I think episode six only went up to version B and had maybe two pages of notes!

No, I definitely had the the same experience. It definitely was the most isolated post-process I’ve ever been in because we were all really separated. Katie and Simon in England, Michael in LA.

I’m actually in Colorado. I’ve been working remotely from Colorado since the pandemic started - back and forth to LA a little bit. We had Evercast available to us, but I don’t know if we ever used it, really. It was all just paper notes.

RUSCIO:Not only that, but they moved Anna and I to actual physical offices which were close to the executives - in theory so that we would be able to work together and they could walk over and work with us. It was still remote, so we were just remote in the same zip code.

HAUGER: At least Michael and I and our assistant could all have lunch together.

Anna Hauger, ACE

SMITH: The production scale of this show was so huge. It came off the back of Game of Thrones. The showrunners made Game of Thrones. One of the scenes in Michael’s episode is in Piccadilly Circus, which is just down the road from where we all cut in London. It’s our equivalent of Times Square. 

The show has this 200 day schedule and they’re this ONE day when they’re gonna close down Piccadilly Circus and for the scene where you see “YOU ARE BUGS” all over the big screens. In the script Auggie came out and the camera kind of pulled around her to show her in the middle, surrounded by signs.

Of course that day can’t be moved - Piccadilly Circus can’t change. The actress playing Auggie ends up getting Covid right as that’s about to happen. I think she tested positive the day before. They had another actor come out and do the shot and they face-replaced.

RUSCIO:They did a double on the day and then they came back and did blue screen. We incorporated that with the same camera moves. That was a two day shoot.

HAUGER: It affected episode six as well because we have a shot where Auggie comes up from the tube station and Piccadilly Circus is supposed to be completely empty. We had a body double, but that one they actually re-shot.

SMITH: We also had to have some remote directing. Minkie [Spiro] was our director on episodes four or five, and she six as well?

HAUGER: Yeah, she was six as well.

SMITH: She did three episodes. She’s fantastic. But she had to do a couple of days of remote directing over an iPad because she tested positive. I remember those scenes coming in and luckily it was all in Wade’s office.

Simon Smith, ACE and assembly editor, Craig Ferreira

RUSCIO:Also in the bar. They did the bar before at the Panama Canal, that she directed, which was very challenging ‘cause it was Auggie having to do a scene where she realizes that Raj isn’t necessarily who she thought he was, so it was very complicated to direct from afar, that sort of nuance.

There’s a huge amount of intercutting of storylines. There are storylines all over the place: across continents, across multiple people, across the good guys and the bad guys. Talk to me a little bit about the structure of those things in your episodes and did the intercutting change from the script or did you find that it stayed pretty much the same?

RUSCIO:Initially in episode one, which Katie Weiland edited, the Oxford scene where the clock tower is and the stars are blinking. Then there was the part in China at the lab where Young Ye sort of lets them know that she knows that something is amiss - that what is happening here on the base isn’t what they say is happening, and they reveal in the course of the scene that they’re communicating with whoever is out there.

Those scenes were separate. I think it was Katie’s idea to intercut them so that everything played off each other. So there was a little bit of a suspense of what was happening on the base, then also suspense about what was happening at the clock tower.

So that became the structure of that. That was how the ending of episode one stayed from that moment that she created that structure.

SMITH: We all swapped scenes. I had the scene in my episode that would’ve started episode five and I think there’s a scene in Michael’s episode that might have started in episode four, but I think the one with Raj and Wade outside the ship at the beginning of your episode, Michael, is that right?

RUSCIO:That opens episode five, but that was in three different places before then.

Michael Ruscio, ACE’s work from home set-up

SMITH: I think I had a go at that scene at one point. You had a go at that scene. Kate had it.

RUSCIO:I felt like it was in episode two, three and five. It was sort of this floater - it was edited by multiple people and ultimately ended up in episode five, which was repurposed there. Just sort to start the journey with Wade and Raj where Wade asks him to take one for the team. What he’s offering is much more important than anything else that Wade could do for the Navy.

So that ended up being the structure of episode five to start with - that we’re gonna have this mission that’s coming because episode five initially had a lot of conversation with the older Ye and with Da Shi which is about her communication with the aliens.

Episode four ends with the police raid and they catch her. So then it started again in episode five with. There was another scene in episode five where Wade was sort of displaying everything for the group, which went away.

SMITH: I feel like there were a lot of iterations of five and there were quite a few iterations of one as well. There were scenes in episode one, when I eventually saw it, which I never even knew existed. And that’s the first episode. I think you have to all kind of do your thing - you and the team.

When you get thrown the ball, it’s your turn to do your bit and pass it on to someone else.

HAUGER: I don’t wanna say I lucked out, but I think episode six is the most self-contained episode of the series. It’s basically just dealing with the ramifications of episode five and what our main characters are doing to deal with what happened in episode five.

There were two exciting things that happened with episode six. We had a scene with full frontal male nudity. I think we nicknamed him Monty - he was the full Monty. At some point I think the showrunners decided it was just too much.

It was this emotional scene with Auggie and Saul and then it became a little bit slapstick. So they asked me to find a way to remove him. It wasn’t too tricky. I think VFX had to paint him out in a couple shots, but there was enough coverage that I could cut around him except for I think two or three shots.

Boards on a wall for an episode of 3 Body Problem

And on episode six as well, we had this whole intro where the Secretary general of the UN was giving this speech and it was a little dour: “Oh, the aliens are coming, but it’s going to be okay. We’ll pull together and do everything in our power to make it okay.”

You’re watching the spectacle of episode five, then you land in six with this speech and you’re mired in the mud. This is how we’re starting? We’re on such a cliffhanger then it just came to a screeching halt.

So the guys came up with this idea to pull stock footage and create a newsreel intro to show how everybody in the world was feeling about what had just transpired in episode five.

It was a great challenge because they didn’t give me a lot of in-depth instruction of what to do. They just kind of said, “Make a news reel montage about what just happened in episode five.” So we pulled a bunch of stock footage from riots, from alien conventions, from whatever we could and put something together.

It incorporated bits from the original intro with the Secretary General and from our characters. I think it pacing’s a lot better and it’s a much more exciting way into episode six.

SMITH: I think what this speaks to though is the gargantuan nature of adapting the books and trying to set something up that hopefully will play out over multiple seasons, over hundreds of years of story of these characters.

I really admired how we never accepted something because we’d shot it. On some shows a scene ends up in there because that’s how it was shot on the day, and we just have to make this work. But on this show, anything goes. Anything can be changed.

Anything can be dropped. Anything can be cut and will be reshot and rewritten to best serve the final product. So it was quite amazing working on something with such infinite possibilities.

How Simon Smith organizes a bin for a scene in 3 Body Problem… Ok, Simon probably doesn’t organize this well… probably his assistant editor! Nice work!

I don’t want to name-drop, but Ron Howard wrote the Foreword for my next book and one of the great things he said was: there’s so much possibility with editing. You can have an idea for what you want to do as a director or a producer but it sometimes doesn’t work. Then you get to editing, and what is amazing in editing is even though you’ve failed, editing can make it BETTER than your original vision. Can you talk to that possibility?

HAUGER: It’s one of the great things about editing and why I love being an editor is you are such a creative part of the filmmaking process. It’s like writing the episode. It’s the last time you write the episode.

I find that happens at least once in every show that I work on: that something isn’t working and everybody has to kind of dig deep and figure out how to make it work.

I’ve been really lucky to work with great teams who trust me as an editor and I trust them as creative collaborators and we’re able to take something that’s subpar and make it really work to tell the story and help the season.

The goal is not just to FIX it, right? The goal is to PLUS it somehow.

RUSCIO:So much of it is context as well. Editors hate it when they get the note from producers or directors: Is that the best take?" We always bristle at that but what is interesting is that you’ll sometimes repurpose your thinking.

So sometimes what was an amazing performance is stellar and you look at it and that was maybe take five after the director had worked with an actor. Then when you’re a working through the scene you realize, “You know, I just really need something simple because of the way we’re designing the scene or the way the character arc is or the emotional rise within a sequence.

So I need take one, where the actor did nothing” and suddenly it comes alive in a way that’s a chemical reaction just by using different material from what you initially thought was really the best.

Maybe you need a camera move which is less good so that you can get out of it quicker because you’re going to some other material. So I just find the pliability of material and how constantly as editors we’re reevaluating what is working to make the story be told or the character’s emotions have a through-line.

It’s always so fluid and it’s great with collaborators like Anna and Simon and Katie where we were throwing ideas to each other. Anna and I were able to do that more than anyone else ‘cause we were in proximity to each other. I find the fluidity of that process really, really fascinating.

SMITH: I didn’t ever feel like we were doing anything fancy or spectacular with the editing. I think that wasn’t the style that this show was going for. There’s maybe some more abstract things that I’ve done on other shows.

This felt as if the characters - and falling in love with all these characters - was key. Partly ‘cause of how many they kill off, but just making it accessible for people to follow along. So I think that there was less experimentation in the way that we would edit. It was more like Michael said - the context in which you were letting the story and each scene play out.

That was where we were really doing our work. Recut a scene, not in a different edit style, but mainly to, to get the most out of the characters or to get the audience to fall in love with these characters more.

Did the actors give you a lot of different color and temperature variations that allowed you to manipulate the story?

SMITH: John Bradley - who played Jack - was so good. His level of craft - for a young guy - I think he’s an exceptional actor. I never felt that I struggled with editing a scene with him. His continuity, his blocking - he’s always on point exactly when he needed to be, how he needed it. 

He never missed a line or missed a beat or fluffed the script, ever. I think I was always able to deliver what I needed and what I was being asked for. It just stood out to me how good he was from the perspective of an editor.

RUSCIO:And the other John - Jonathan Price - he’ll give you a lot of variety of performance. Many times he would just be sitting at a table talking to a microphone, so that’s all in his imagination coming alive. That was pretty astounding. The killer actor for me in the series is the Young Ye [actress, Zine Tseng].

Young Ye (actress, Zine Tseng)

HAUGER: She’s incredible. I really wish that I had had some scenes with her. One of the best parts of the show for me is the China storyline.

RUSCIO:That was a thrill. And to sort of have some hands on that a little bit, as the inheritor. Not a lot of the Chinese material changed. It was more the things in Oxford that changed. But I still had the chance to sometimes look at different performances or look at dailies. 

I just thought that she was really astounding. Then the other revelation acting-wise that I think happened in the course of it was Jess Hong who grew as an actor in the process of making the show. 

So over the 200+ days - to the point where we were shooting in December of 2023 - she developed a lot more confidence, quicker reactions, real camera savviness. So it was fun to see someone like that be able to grow.

Michael, you said that there were places you found different temperatures of performance…

RUSCIO:Yeah, I think that that happened a couple times with Auggie. We really wanted simple performances and something where she would just deliver more flatly scientific material because as an actor she’s so expressive and doesn’t really need to do a lot. 

Where the colors changed, I think was certainly in dialogue and in how much information was parsed out and what we were able to do with either off-screen or ADR. 

Episode five went through so many different writings to the point where we were working with these templates were I would take some of what the Sophon had originally said and then freeze frame, then we’d have Josh - Carly’s wife was doing her voice as a temp - and we put the lines on screen.

“This is such a work in progress, here you go.” Or I would do things where things were just not really in sync, but “Okay, we’re gonna reshoot this, we need to figure out if this is what she should say.” So it’s close or I’ll put something off-camera. 

That was really liberating for me because basically at some point it was so deconstructed that all the Legos were just really on the floor and knowing that you’re going to redo something to make it sing better. Realizing, “Okay, we’re going to do additional photography. 

We don’t have to - as editors - really make this work. It’s almost like storyboarding: envisioning how this can be. What variation of this shot would we need? The blocking would need to stay the same, but what’s being said is gonna be very different.

Is it sometimes better to just put up a slate where somebody can use their imagination or is it better that they have some kind of visual? What do you do when you’re trying to cut a scene like that? What’s the best thing? Or does it depend on the scene?

HAUGER: I think it depends on the audience and who you’re showing it to. If it’s somebody who’s kind of familiar with it or has the imagination, I think visuals help. 

But when it’s somebody who’s maybe not so related to the creative process, I think a slate is sometimes better to make sure that they’re not being colored by something they’re seeing on screen and immediately turned off by the concept that’s being pitched.

RUSCIO: I would agree with that. If I can talk about something that I’m working on currently, sometimes I’d do a slate like Anna is talking about, if it was material that I didn’t have at all. 

But sometimes if it’s an insert with an action where somebody’s pulling a gun or something like that, I will just do a freeze frame and put a title over it. Like “action continues in a tighter version” so that you’re seeing what you’re matching to. 

My propensity is to not just slate because I don’t want to get something that doesn’t relate to what I have unless you’re reshooting the whole shot. But if you’re just reshooting, it’s helpful to know what direction it is or where their hand is or which hand it is. 

Sometimes you can get a little bit messed up and honestly, sometimes people don’t like that. They just say, “I’d rather have just have a slate.” But I kind of do a combination.

HAUGER: Yeah, for insert purposes. I think absolutely if you have a reference image, it’s invaluable.

I think the audience is the really important thing to think about there. I agree with you Anna. I talked to the Masters of Air editors and they said - when they’re trying to figure out air battles - sometimes when it’s concerning 3D geography, they would take out their iPhones and shoot model airplanes. But other times - when it was just “the wing catches on fire” they would just put up a slate that says “Wing catches on fire” instead of pulling something off of YouTube. Same thing with Dune. They had [director Denis Villeneuve] using his hands to pick up a deck of cards as a placeholder for a spice harvester being lifted. It goes to that audience idea: who’s the audience?

RUSCIO: I think. To get back to 3 Body Problem, with the Sophon sequence, at one point they said, “Episode five is locked except for the Sophon sequence. So I has version double-A of just that sequence. At a certain point - when we know we’re gonna reshoot something - I’m just gonna let you see something visual. 

We know this is rubbish (one of Minnie’s favorite phrases) but it’s a helpful tool because it’s showing you where we’re going. What our ideas are for the new photography and where it’s gonna go and how it’s gonna tell the story. Are we telling people what they need to know? 

It’s a very measured, trusting exercise with your collaborators. We were working on it for so long that we had to trust each other and communicate with the effects people, with the showrunners, with me, with my assistant, with sound, everything. So we just said, “Cards on the table.”

I’m interested in the first episode: the Chinese stuff. Was there a thought of “how long should we be in 1970s China before the audience sees something else from the story?” 

SMITH: I love the China stuff so much. It wasn’t in my episode, so I was pitching, “Can we spread the China stuff out and let it go all the way to episode four?” They didn’t go for it. This series, they tried to take big steps between each episode and make big changes between each episode.

Just when you think, “Oh, this is gonna be a show that goes backwards and forwards between 1970s China and the Oxford five” that’s gone. Just as you think in episode three and four, “Oh, we’re gonna explore this game, they’re gonna be in this game and it’s gonna be about this 3D environment” we never see the helmets again after, episode five. 

Characters get killed pretty quickly. I really applaud that and find that fascinating. This is trying to get a momentum going so that we can go to these wild places in coming seasons. It’s not a small singular idea that they’re trying to do.

RUSCIO: There is a real continuity as you watch all eight of them as far as what’s happening in terms of the time signature, even though there’s the seventies and there’s the current and everything else, but it feels like there’s carryover and at the same time - like you’re saying Simon - there are these jumps in tone and within the timeline, so it’s a real delicate dance that got pulled off somehow.

SMITH: It keeps the audience really, really engaged because it feels more like a roller coaster ride than a train ride. Just as they think they know it’s going somewhere, it takes ’em somewhere cool and new and I think that keeps people attached to it in the same way that other great shows, like Squid Game, did as well.

Are there any specific scenes or challenges that each one of you would like to talk about?

SMITH: At the end of episode three - I’m giving away spoilers - I hope everyone’s watched a whole series when they listen to this! At the end of episode three, when we kill off Jack, that was hard killing him off. 

Actually in an early version of the script, we didn’t know how he died but later iterations of the script decided, “No, we need to see that.” It was really tough to cut that scene - so much so that we all had a go at it. 

I found that a really tough one to do and to get right. There’s quite high-concept stuff going on because Da Chi, who sat in the car outside, can’t see what’s going on even though he’s meant to be looking through the window into the room. So he’s trying to tell the audience that he’s looking through this window and yet he can’t see what’s going on.

I was very happy to see other cuts come in from other people. I liked when Anna did her cut, I thought, “Oh, that’s cool” because as an editor you can quite easily get stuck in a way that you’ve done something or in a way that you’ve blocked it out the first time. 

Certainly for me, in the way that it was first scripted, I never really nailed how to handle that knife, and it was only Anna’s taking that scene and just starting from scratch and doing another version that got it to where it ended up - where it did work.

HAUGER: That’s always a fun part of editing - kind of passing the scenes back and forth to other editors or sometimes when I get stuck on something I’ll have my assistant have a go at it. I just say, “I’m out of ideas.” Even if it doesn’t work you can kind of see a different perspective, which often gives you the key to unlock the scene and unlock the problem.

RUSCIO: There’s a small scene in episode five in the safe house between Auggie and Jess. There was a lot of dialogue that came out of it and still there’s movement within it where Auggie gets up, she walks across and she starts at the window, she comes and sits down. 

They took out big chunks of dialogue and still needing to kinda keep the rhythm of it right. For some reason that scene was very, very challenging. As much as the whole episode has crazy things with like the slicing and dicing and the eye in the sky and everything else - which was very complicated. 

But that small character scene - which is so intimate between these two friends - where there was a desire to remove dialogue and still keep the sort of pattern where it starts at the window, she sits on a big chair and have that still make geographic and emotional sense. 

That was a lot of edits on that scene. You’d never know, but it’s one of those things that is very deceptive and tricky because you’re so close to the characters and there’s no place to hide. 

There are no VFX that can get you out of it. Mostly in that scene they were always covering each other, so even split screens were difficult to get positions right because of the nature of how much dialogue was taken out of it.

A screenshot of an Avid ScriptSync page. lLike a lined script, but inside the NLE. 

Lines can be accessed directly from the script for any take, 

loading them directly to the source monitor.

People think so much of our job is this initial cut - like building something up  - when a lot of times it’s the massive revisions and trying to make them look good. That’s a lot of the trickiest part of what we do. Michael, Simon, and Anna, thank you so much for joining me on Art of the Cut. This was really interesting to talk about 3 Body Problem.

SMITH: Thank you Steve. Can’t wait for your book. Looking forward to that.

RUSCIO: Yeah, thanks for having us.

HAUGER: Thank you.