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Pictures In A Row Taps its Legacy to Integrate Production and Editorial
by Anthony Vagnoni

Founded by a director with a passion for editing, Picrow offers full up production and editorial – with all the benefits that entails – in an environment seeped in Hollywood tradition.

If there were ghosts running around the studio at Pictures in a Row, one thing is certain—they’d be famous ghosts. Maybe the young Marilyn Monroe, or Walter Koenig (that’s right, Ensign Chekov from “Star Trek”), or even the jut-jawed Robert Conrad, the star of the original 1970s TV series “The Wild, Wild West.” All have ties to the building in L.A. that Pictures in a Row calls home.

What’s this got to do with editing? Kind of everything and nothing. The connections to what the folks at PicRow, as they are commonly known, are doing are nothing more than ethereal. “There used to be optical benches back here where our editing bays are now,” says Pictures in a Row founder and director Peter Lang. Lang, a former editor himself who believes the legacy of the company’s location helps underscore its deep roots in production.
Today, Pictures in a Row is a diverse studio that not only shoots TV spots for a range of top brands and agencies around the country, but also has a thriving post production arm that provides full service editorial for TV spots, music videos and other projects. Lang is the shop’s lead director, with Jason House also directing in as well as editing. House is one of a team of six editors that is lead by Gregory Nussbaum, a veteran whose work ranges from spots to features. While Nussbaum frequently collaborates with Lang on his work, he also cuts work for a range of other directors and agencies.

Their operation is housed together in one sprawling (metaphorically, at least) operation that’s part shooting stage, part production company, part creative editorial house—in a sense, it’s its own little commune. And it seems the locale is well-suited to Pictures in a Row’s eclectic offerings. Before the company occupied the space on Seward Avenue in Los Angeles, it was the home base of Ray Feeney, a special effects wizard who helped develop one of the first motion control rigs. Before that, it was the home of the Westheimer Company, a revered visual effects house that not only produced many of the practical effects seen on the original “Star Trek” TV series, but countless other gems of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. And prior to that, it was the studio of a photographer named Tom Kelley, whose shot of a nude Marilyn Monroe, sprawled across a ruby-colored satin sheet still causes a sensation, even in these days of pop stars wearing outfits made of raw meat.

Lang is a brainy, thoughtful yet engaging Harvard grad who ended up dropping architecture for a different kind of design and planning—that of film, not buildings. He got his start in the business as an editor, but quickly started shooting, and for a period of time early in his career cut most of his own work, much of it TV commercials for L.A.-based agencies.

Fascinated by the existential meaning of what filmmaking represents—ask him to explain his thoughts on Rene Magritte and the ‘Treachery of Images’ and how movies are really just two-dimensional representations of real, three-dimensional objects and spaces—he’s also deeply vested in the interplay between editors and directors, and what that can produce in terms of work.

“This place has a legacy that’s so cool,” says Lang. “There even used to be Moviolas here, and flatbeds,” he says of the relics of creative editorial that used to be employed in the rooms where they now run Final Cut Pro. And Feeney, who won three Oscars for his visual effects technology, links the world of practical effects with the current world of digital effects, Lang notes—providing another layer to the PicRow back story.

What’s just as alluring to Lang is not only the bridge between the practical and digital realms of filmmaking, but the link between directing and editing. As he became busier and busier as a director, he was no longer able to edit his own work; hence, the studio brought in Nussbaum, who cut almost all of Lang’s work for a time. “There was a period when we were essentially a small production boutique with one director joined to a small editing boutique with one editor,” says Lang.

Eventually, as the company grew and Nussbaum began to cut work for other PicRow directors, as well as work from outside the company, he was less and less available for Lang—so the company, by necessity, grew its editorial capabilities and brought in additional talents.

The result has been a melting pot of talents—the blending of which is not all that accidental, says Lang. “The intermingling of people and skills here is really all about making this studio more than the sum of its parts,” he comments. “It’s a deliberate strategy designed to let us play off of each other’s strengths, both conceptually and in terms of our capabilities. There’s lots of sharing of ideas here between directors and editors, as well as with our designers and effects artists. We find the more points of view we have, the better the work turns out.”

While the PicRow editorial crew often edits the work that PicRow directors shoot, it’s not all they do, says Executive Producer and Partner Electra Lang. “We edit work that other directors at other production companies shoot, and there’s work that we shoot that gets cut at other editorial houses,” she points out. “We enjoy working with everyone, and we benefit from these relationships in lots of ways. For example, even thought we can do finishing here, there are still times when we go to places like Company 3—Peter and Stefan Sonnenfeld have worked together many times, and have a great relationship.”

So what’s the biggest advantage of the PicRow one-stop model? “It’s a mix of things,” Electra says. “There’s not just the creative energy that comes out of our collaboration, but also an element of efficiency and convenience.”

Clients are also finding that the benefits of working in the PicRow style have advantages that are more intangible, says Electra. “Agencies are beginning to set up their own editorial bays, and they understand how you can work quickly and nimbly, with lots of direct creative feedback. When they come here and see a company that’s set up along similar lines—and producing high-end work in the process, not just the kind of bread-and-butter work that’s often associated with in-house facilities—they immediately see its appeal.”

A great example of how PicRow taps all its one-stop goodies in the service of agencies is a job it’s doing for USAA, a financial services company that offers products like insurance to the families of retired and active servicemen and women. The spot is being shot on the PicRow stage, which has been artfully made up to look like a high-tech battle command center (with Phasers set on stun, we’re sure), decked out in soldiers in full battle dress; Lang is shooting the job, which is being cut at PicRow as well.
From the editor’s point of view, having this kind of input from the director—and this ability to weigh in on how best to approach a job early on in the process—is a thing of beauty. “We have a very collaborative, team atmosphere here,” says Nussbaum. “It works well on a number of levels. For example, I’m not stuck in a narrow definition of what I do.” There are times when he almost functions as an assistant (albeit one with a pretty advanced reel), he points out, supporting the work of the more junior editors on the staff, or working on executing graphics or effects for other jobs. “There are no egos here about who does what. It’s a lot of fun.”

This sharing attitude has helped PicRow smooth over areas in post production. An example of this is when Nussbaum took a break for a year to edit Frank Miller’s “The Spirit,” a 2008 futuristic thriller starring Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, explains Electra Lang. “Gregory had been cutting most of our bigger jobs and all of Peter’s work, but when he went off to do the feature, another of our editors, Joe Remerowski, stepped in and picked up the slack.”

It helps that PicRow at times functions like a campus—in addition to the high spirits and the hijinks, along with a finely attuned sense of belonging, there’s also constant learning and professional development taking place.

“People are always getting together and pouring over cuts, seeing if there were ways to do things better,” says Nussbaum. “I just had some graphics work to do on a Honda spot, and I had another editor sitting with me while I was building comps, and that happens all the time here, that kind of hands-on training.”
“And that’s how I learned—by working with Greg,” says Remerowski. “You learn more and more about filmmaking and editing here from working with Peter and Gregory. They’re always teaching.” Adds Nussbaum, “Peter is famous for that. Everyone here has spent hours and hours with him, learning to mix audio, learning to color correct, learning to Photoshop still images.”
“I think it surprises people a lot when they come to work here to learn that Peter will drop everything and sit in a room with you until 1 AM, to make sure that your sound mix is right,” says Remerowski. “Gregory will do the same. Everyone here helps chip in when they need to.”

Peter Lang’s abiding belief that editing should not be separated from filmmaking is behind all the efforts that the company has undertaken. This includes the investment in the stage, the editor corps, the gear and the capabilities. “The more points of view and the more contributions you can bring in from diverse sources, the better the final product is going to be,” says Lang, “and that holds true whether we’re cutting for one of our directors or not. The goal is always to get the best possible effect.”