Dann Cahn on editing I Love Lucy with the Three Headed Monster

Dann Cahn ACE on editing I Love Lucy:

The back stories of I Love Lucy are probably familiar to many, but the extent of Cahn’s influence and importance within the post-production community cannot be overstated. In 1951, the studio system was changing and the industry was in flux. Fewer audiences were going to movie theaters and more were staying home to watch the new medium, television. No one could have imagined then how television would impact the film industry, American culture, or the combination of events that would launch the historic and groundbreaking series, I Love Lucy. Most television shows were broadcast live from New York City, sometimes recorded onto very poor quality Kinescope to broadcast to the rest of the country.

Lucille Ball’s husband and executive producer, Desi Arnaz had other ideas. He negotiated with CBS for Desilu Productions to pay the difference to shoot the show in 35mm film with an IA Hollywood crew, in front of a live audience. Filming episodes gave him flexibility and control; he could stay home in Los Angeles with his wife and newborn daughter Lucie, work with familiar crews and production facilities and add spontaneity to each episode with a live audience. Arnaz also negotiated to own the negative, which would pay off in unexpected ways later with syndication and archiving. Of course he was also unaware that the series would ever be available to view on formats like VHS and DVD many years later.

Dann Cahn, right, reviewing footage with Desi Arnaz, circa 1955-56. Photo courtesy of Desilu, too, LLC and CBS and the Dann Cahn Collection.

I was introduced to Cahn at the Lucy-Desi Museum on the evening of the first day’s events. The museum has a permanent installation of the recreated sets of the Ricardo’s New York City apartment (the one with the window where Lucy, dressed as Superman, hid on the ledge outside) and the Beverly Palms Hotel (when Lucy and Harpo Marx mimed each other’s gestures) site of the “LA at Last” episodes. He was clearly thrilled to be “on set” again, and wasted no time indoctrinating me to his oeuvre with a personal guided tour.

Along the entire expanse of the wall opposite these sets, is a life-sized black and white photograph taken during the filming of an episode in 1951, showing the audience with the three-camera set up and everyone involved in the show, including Cahn. Also opposite the sets is a seven-minute video loop where he vibrantly explains how the first season’s episodes came together, working every day of the week for over 35 consecutive weeks, with a live audience. As we walked, Cahn identified everyone from that first season; Marc Daniels, the director, Jess Oppenheimer the producer, and cinematographer Karl Freund, who won the 1938 Best Cinematography Academy Award for The Good Earth. I asked how the series’ crew came together. “Well,” he said, “Lucy and Desi wanted the best in the business, the people they had worked with before in film, so they approached those same people.”  I then asked if the show was required to go under a union contract, and he said, “No, but they insisted on working with the best, and those people worked union, so that’s the way it was going to be.”

We continued the tour and came upon the infamous “Three-Headed Monster”–a Moviola which played the film from all three camera angles simultaneously and (hopefully) in sync with an optical track for sound. Dubbed “The Monster” by Dann, because the props room was the only space on the stage large enough to accommodate its size, this machine is enormous. It was daunting for me, a digital-age assistant editor, to imagine the reels of film from three cameras running through it, the editor marking and making changes, all the while determining and meeting the demands for the new workflow, which was really multi-cam editing in its beta stage. We had a long weekend ahead of us, so after the tour, we decided to save some of my questions for a one-on-one breakfast meeting the next day, before the other events began.

The first thing Cahn said to me at breakfast was, “Don’t ask me about the Three-Headed Monster, everyone asks about that.”  So that scrapped my first question. Instead, I asked about the optical sound track, and how that worked, since I had never worked with one. His eyes widened and he said, “Oh well, you know we used to read the optical track, we read it with a sort of shorthand. We could actually see the sound that had been recorded by reading the levels on the print itself. So when we switched to Mag the second season we couldn’t read the lines anymore, and it was a lot more work for us!  But we adjusted to it and saved a lot of money and time and the quality was much better!”  This got me thinking about schedules and time constraints, so I asked him to describe a typical work week.

The three camera angles of the “Vitameatavegamin” episode of I Love Lucy on the Monster, 1952. Photo courtesy of Desilu, too, LLC and CBS and the Dann Cahn Collection.

The schedule was tight, Cahn related, especially compared to the more familiar pace of feature film editing. A new episode had a table read on Monday, rehearsal on Tuesday, camera rehearsal on Wednesday, and a full camera run-through on Thursday. On Friday evening in front of a live audience, the episode was filmed, in scripted scene order; the film was processed, printed, and in the cutting room on Monday morning usually by eight AM. Dann marked with a grease pencil, Bud made the cuts (with scissors) and pasted; cut scenes were then adjusted and fixed. The editor’s cut was ready to screen with the director by the time rehearsals for the next episode were already under way. Very quickly, due to demands on set, and with Cahn’s natural ability at cutting comedy and working fast, the director’s cut dissipated. A pattern of six-day work weeks and 14-hour days was unavoidably established.

In the context of the high-pressure schedule, he recalled, “They thought that the Monster would enable me to do everything, but it was just a tool, like the Avid is today; we couldn’t do everything within the time constraints!  It’s expected today that picture editors do temp sound and music work.” The crew quickly increased to include an apprentice and an additional editor for sound effects and music. Dann remembered Desi’s remark to him, “Danny you want a crew bigger than my band? But that that’s exactly what eventually happened as Desilu expanded its productions as well as Cahn’s role in the company.

Inevitably, just as the workload seemed more manageable with his expanded crew working on the first episode, it was decided that the second episode would air first. The reaction to the second episode was so strong, the sponsor and CBS decided to the switch the air dates. The six-day editorial work week immediately shifted to seven days, and within four weeks all the editing and sound work, opticals, negative cutting and answer print was completed and delivered within hours of airtime. In addition to these unforeseen shakeups, Cahn also had to think creatively and act fast, especially when things didn’t run as smoothly as planned.The first serious technical issue the editing team confronted was one still familiar to assistant editors today; fixing out of sync dailies. The three-camera setup used a “blue light” system instead of the traditional clapper; as the camera rolled at the start of a scene, all the film rolls were buzzed and flashed with a light that was exposed onto a frame of film and soundtrack. The three-camera setup was interlocked so that the flash would occur on all three cameras simultaneously. However, the flash from the three different cameras never actually wound up in the same place, as intended, so the task of eye synching most of the footage was added to the crunched schedule.   After the first few shows, Cahn decided to go to the studio mill and make a giant sized wooden clapper that would cover all three cameras, and the sync problem was resolved. He then recalled Karl Freund’s wisecrack to Jess Oppenheimer, “We’ve got a bright boy here; with this giant clapper he’s reinvented the wheel!”

I asked Dann about music cues and how that developed. “Director Marc Daniels’ experience was in live theater, and that kind of spontaneity was great for the show, but not to get the music cues I needed for a cut,” he explained. I’d get music with dailies, but they were never the right length and nothing ever matched. So to get around this, I’d cut the episode and take the timings to the set on Friday, just like we did in features; the band was set up, and I’d give them my list of cues to record. They had to learn that not everything could happen all at once in the cutting room; it wasn’t like live TV or theater. The show had to be scored just like a movie and I was always adapting motion picture techniques to everything we did!”

Not all issues were necessarily technical problems to be solved. Sometimes it was inspiration out of necessity. I brought up the subjects of visual effects and opticals, and Dann offered two interesting examples. The first was the “LA at Last” episodes, when the Ricardos and the Mertzes traveled from New York City to Los Angeles in a convertible car. There was no time to send the cast to New York or anywhere else for these episodes. Location shots with a second unit would be faster and keep the story authentic. The location photography was assigned to Cahn, and he worked out the various angles with the DP and the second season director, Bill Asher.

The very first location was the George Washington Bridge, which provided the BG for the first process photography for television. In the completed episode, we see the gang at the start of their trip, crossing the bridge, along with all the regular car traffic following and passing. Cahn shot the traffic from the back of a truck, and that became the film plate that was projected behind the gang in the convertible on set in Los Angeles. Another optical was for the sponsor commercials. “Every week we received new commercials from the Milton Biow Agency in New York City,” Cahn recalled. “These played an integral part and tied into each episode in a unique way week-to-week. The commercials were animation stick figures of Lucy and Desi doing different things, and the animation would peel away to reveal the upcoming scene.”  These effects were not firsts for film, but they were for television.

As with the day before, everyone had questions. One of the last questions of the morning was about delivering prints for broadcast, “How did the prints get to their locations on time and what if they didn’t?”  Cahn folded his arms and smiled. “The prints flew out on planes, and because there were no jets, it was a long trip to New York, with stops along the way!” he said. We all looked at each other as if this one element was what we could all finally relate to in our real day-to-day lives, how much times have changed and how different the world is. Cahn continued, “There was one close call, and the print arrived in New York only a couple of hours before air time, but we made it!”

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