Diving Into National Geographic’s Hot Zone: Anthrax with Editor Eric Litman

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Editor Eric Litman worked on Marvel’s Emmy-nominated series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and most recently on National Geographic’s Hot Zone: Anthrax, a show based on tthe events that took place in 2001, weeks after 9/11, when the United States was rocked by another deadly act of terrorism.

PH: Which scene was your favorite to work on in The Hot Zone: Anthrax?

Eric Litman: There were a couple of them, actually. The first scene that I’m actually really proud of is in the pilot. I consider it one scene, but it’s really two scenes back-to-back. It’s setting the story for how anthrax was manufactured and weaponized, and the consequences of handling something so deadly. The pilot takes place in Russia in the late 70’s, where we see a chemical weapons plant manufacturing or making weaponized anthrax, meaning it’s aerosolized. It escapes the lab and infects an entire town and kills lots of innocent people. It basically infected a playground with all of these innocent children playing. And I coupled that with the happiest shots of children playing, with these deadly spores coming at everyone. 

The next scene is in the hospital, where everyone who’s sick is coming to try and get help and the doctors are trying to treat them. They’re not quite sure what’s going on, and the Russian military comes in and quickly takes over the hospital because they’ve got to cover it up. They don’t want the world to know what’s really going on. When I cut this scene, particularly the hospital scene, I cut it a lot of different ways, and this is where my collaboration with the director, Daniel Percival, and Evercast came into play. We were able to look at the scene a number of different ways, from POV. What does the scene look like if we open up with our doctor, who’s treating all these people, who realizes what’s going on and ultimately has to show to the world through evidence what has happened? I don’t want to spoil the scene, but it’s a little graphic, but what if we come in with her, and we see everything from her perspective? So we did that initially, and then the idea was well, what if we came in with the Russian military, and we find our doctor, and we shift POV? So we were able to do that. 

What I found doing this was, once I had these two different versions of the scene, I was able to find moments from both versions and make a third version, where we’re with the doctor, we keep POV on her the whole time, and we see the Russian military come in through her eyes, and what they’re doing to take over the hospital. I found this way of collaborating with the director (doing a number of versions, trying things, saying maybe this isn’t going to work, but you don’t really know until you try) to be great and it tremendously helped the scene. 

The other scene that I’m extremely proud of is in my other episode on The Hot Zone: Anthrax: episode five, directed by Courtney Hunt. We had a big interrogation scene with Daniel Dae Kim, who played Matthew Riker, and Tony Goldwyn, who plays Bruce Ivans. And it’s just a simple scene with the two of them in the interrogation room. It’s a nine minute scene of them going back and forth and it was phenomenal performances by both of them. Every turn I made, every cut I made or didn’t make was great. But I found that with the coverage that I was given by Courtney, I had various shots ranging from two-shots, wide shots, to medium shots, and even ones that start at a medium and slowly transition into a close up. I even had shots that were canted or what we would call a Dutch angle that lets us know in the plot “hey something’s a little off here”. I found that, you see that in the coverage and you immediately want to go to it, but what you ultimately want to do is you want to work your way up to it. And I found by playing things traditionally, and then slowly working my way to the pushes, to the dutch angles, depending on who’s in power and who’s not in power, it really helps shape the scene. We’ve seen interrogation scenes a million times, sometimes they can feel “been there, done that,” but a nine-page interrogation scene with this type of arc, with the power constantly shifting to Riker, to Ivans, back to Riker, it just made it very fulfilling. I’m very proud of that section of the show.

PH: Describe this scene and the significance it has to the rest of the series.

Eric Litman: The first scene of the Russian contamination and taking over of the hospital sets the tone for the whole show. Russia was weaponizing anthrax with the intent of using it in a terrorist attack. Matthew Riker, played by Daniel Dae Kim, is an FBI Agent. He’s the one who immediately says, when the anthrax attacks are happening three weeks after 9/11, “this is another terrorist attack, we got to take this seriously.” He’s been following what’s been happening. He’s aware of all the history here, but no one really believes him. No one really thinks where this is going. And so it’s basically the mission statement for the whole show. The second scene, the interrogation scene, is a culmination of the whole series. Riker’s so sure that he’s right, Dr. Ivans doesn’t really think what he’s doing is wrong. So, it’s the first time that our two main characters have a face off. We’ve worked our way up to this point of the show, so it’s a good end result.

PH: What tools, plugins, or instruments did you use in your production of these two scenes?

Eric Litman: We cut this on Avid, so all my editing was done on an Avid Media Composer and we used Evercast to stream the cut with the different producers. The one thing that I was able to do in the interrogation scene, because there were a number of flashbacks in that scene from Bruce’s perspective (Bruce Ivans had a haunted childhood) was with quick cuts. I was able to take snippets of what was shot of what happened to him and intercut it in when he was thinking about certain things. I wanted to stylize these shots so that we knew it is something in his mind, not what was happening in the moment. Avid has a great Sapphire plugin, and I was able to stylize these shots as vignettes, some tilt shifts, focus, and obviously different high-contrast colors, and I was able to give these shots a very unique look so that we knew we were in Bruce’s mind. Then we cut to the interrogation scene to show this is what’s happening now. So that, coupled with some really cool sound design, created a really nice, jarring effect.

PH: What technical challenges did you encounter while working on these two scenes?

Eric Litman: Again, we were in the Pandemic. You don’t have someone right there in the room with you. You’re working on Evercast, which initially you think might be a challenge, but it was a tremendous support because you could work with anyone, anywhere, at any time, and it was very easy to do. The other challenge for the interrogation scene was that it was scripted in a way where we had numerous scenes at the end of that episode. It was the interrogation, then the FBI were doing their searches, and finally investigating other potential suspects. When we watched that scene initially and saw the cut based on how it was scripted, it was like “well this is good, but I feel like there’s opportunities here to make this even better.” You always do, in editing. So what we did was. We ended up intercutting the end of the show with the interrogation, with the search, with Bruce Ivans, and just made for a really fascinating, exciting conclusion to that episode. 

PH: What was the dialogue like between you and the series director or showrunner regarding these scenes?

Eric Litman: The dialogue with everyone on Hot Zone was always extremely collaborative. Access to people: the directors, Daniel Percival, Courtney Hunt, the showrunners Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson, was always very easy. At any moment, we could hop on Evercast and say, “hey, what do you think of this?” It just made collaboration very easy.

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