One Piece Editor Tessa Verfuss Brings Manga to Life

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In our latest interview, we had the pleasure of talking with editor of One Piece, Tessa Verfuss. As editor, Tessa focused on controlling the pacing throughout her episodes, delivering an editor's cut that is very tight and fast-paced from the beginning and then working with the director and producers to find the story beats that need space to breathe. That shift in pace really helped to punctuate dramatic moments amongst the faster action and witty banter between the characters. She also worked with the composing team to ensure the music accurately fit the story and emotions of the characters. 
The post-production team had a lot of conversations about tone and character, as it was important to make sure Luffy and his crew portray genuine human emotions and motivations. Tessa’s experience cutting fight scenes from her work on Warrior, and pirate ship battles from Black Sails, helped with working on One Piece and choosing which angles were best for VFX, especially when keeping Luffy's superpowers in mind. She acted as VFX editor during the initial weeks of production, and cut together storyboards and previz of a lot of the VFX-heavy sequences long before they were shot, which gave a good idea of what was intended when the footage was ready to edit. 
PH: Hi Tessa! Can you talk about your role as an editor? 
Tessa Verfuss: My role as an editor is, first and foremost, as a storyteller. While the production is still being shot, I'll be the first person to curate and craft the footage into something coherent. I've got my brief from the showrunners and director, but the first assembly is 100% my take on what can be achieved with the footage in terms of performance, emotion, style, and rhythm. It's a huge responsibility, but there's also incredible freedom in that empty timeline. Is there something I can bring that gives a fresh angle on the scene? Is there something I saw in the footage or in a performance that nobody else did?
Once I start the collaboration with a director and the showrunners, the teamwork phase kicks in, and it's amazing that no matter how happy I was with my Editor's Cut, having these other perspectives always elevates the show and makes the story better. It's so great being able to bounce ideas around and come up with creative solutions for dealing with a note. I have to put on my problem-solving hat and find ways of seeing the same shots I've looked at over and over in a different way, opening my mind to what other possibilities exist. I'll never refuse to try to execute a note, even if I'm convinced it can't work, because there's always a chance I'll see something in the footage with fresh eyes that will achieve what's needed. And often, it's addressing the note behind the note – is the issue that there are too many cuts in this section, or is it that the temp music choice isn't supporting the picture? 
PH: Can you share some of your work and how those experiences have shaped your career today? 
Tessa Verfuss: I live and work in Cape Town, which is a popular filming destination for projects from around the world. It's always been fairly common for these projects to employ a local assistant editor just for processing dailies, but when I was starting out, remote work wasn't very easy, so editors would be flown to Cape Town. That way, I could assist them in person, which was a very niche role within post-production in Cape Town. It was from the assistant editing work that I got my biggest breaks into editing. 
My first freelance gig was working in Morocco as an assistant on The Bible with a production team I'd worked with previously in Cape Town. And in the course of the job, I would do a lot of the temp music on scenes for the editors. Everyone really liked what I was doing with the Gladiator soundtrack so much that the executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey decided to ask Hans Zimmer to score the show. I was only meant to be working for the shoot in Morocco and no further, but I managed to convince the team to let me go to London after the shoot to continue to the end of post. And then, another editor had an availability clash, and the next thing I knew, I was co-editing on an episode. 
While I was in Morocco, I got a call about coming back to Cape Town the following year to work as an assistant editor on Black Sails, having been recommended by the editor of Chronicle, Elliot Greenberg. The show wasn't flying any editors out, hoping that working remotely with notes being emailed around would be enough to meet the producer's needs. Long story short is that it wasn't, and an in-person approach to the edit was required, so I raised my hand to fill a sort of in-between role. I ended up doing a lot of additional editing across the first three seasons of the show, cutting the notes with directors and with showrunners Jon Steinberg, Dan Shotz and Robert Levine, who often had to be in Cape Town during their edit. I learned a whole lot that way because I'd had pretty limited assembling experience at this point but was already having to understand how to craft a story towards the end result. By season 4, I had my own episode to edit from start to finish, directed by Alik Sakharov, and I was only 29 years old.
Since then, I have tried to find my way on as many major TV productions coming into Cape Town as possible, even when it involves starting again as an assistant editor. Pretty much no projects come to Cape Town looking to hire an editor here, but I'm always optimistic that I'll have a chance to show what I can do in some capacity. Warrior is another example of a show where that approach has worked out. I was doing assistant editor work when Brett Chan and his stunt team needed someone to edit their fight previz, where they rehearse the entire fight sequences on set with the camera team but with stunt performers instead of the cast. I said I could do it and was suddenly in a position to get some of the best action editing experience anyone could ask for, and those previs sequences, down to the editing, are used as the blueprint for when the scene is shot for real. By season 2, I had an episode to edit, a battle-royale-style episode directed by Dustin Nguyen.
It was shortly after Warrior's second season wrapped that Netflix began making original content in South Africa, and I've had consistent editing roles on their productions ever since across a variety of genres. I've won a SAFTA for best editing on a comedy series for How To Ruin Christmas: The Wedding, and have also consulted on a couple of their projects. Working on content that is so completely different from the big resource productions I'd been on up to that point has really helped broaden my skill set. Having less coverage or fewer takes means having to be even more creative when addressing notes later on, knowing that reshoots are not a possibility. 
PH: Let's talk about One Piece. How did you become involved? 
Tessa Verfuss: I heard that another big series was coming to be shot in Cape Town but knew very little about it beyond that Chris Symes was one of the executive producers. I'd worked with him on Black Sails, so I reached out to find out more and ask how I could get involved. That's when I learned it's a show about pirates, and I thought, “great, this is right in my wheelhouse, bring on the ship battles and sword fights.” I was really hoping I could leverage my Black Sails experience to get a cutting position, particularly when I heard there were a number of other connections between the two projects, including people who now worked at Netflix. I basically reached out to as many contacts as I could, asking for their support. 
Meantime I was learning more about the IP, and watched a bunch of episodes of the anime series, and realised that One Piece couldn't be any further from Black Sails in style and tone. I love fantasy, which is present in One Piece, but wasn't as familiar with anime beyond Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli films. One Piece has so much warmth and joy and sincerity while still being this larger-than-life adventure story, so I was glad I had been editing on all these other shows for the South African market and was able to show I could do more than just action. Also, knowing just how large a fanbase is out there for One Piece appealed to me, and I couldn't resist the idea of working on something that's loved by so many people around the world.
I'd been told not to get my hopes up for an editing role, though, as showrunners Steve Maeda and Matt Owens hadn't expected to have the chance to work with someone in South Africa. With COVID-19, everyone in Hollywood had gotten used to remote editing and perfected the tech behind it, so except for the time difference, there was no clear advantage to having someone in Cape Town like there had been on Black Sails. Luckily, the VFX team was looking for a South African VFX editor to join the team, and I was able to start working on the show in that capacity. At this point, only one editor had been hired, so I knew there were still editing seats to fill.
Being at Cape Town Film Studios meant I was able to interview for an editing role in person with Steve Maeda and later over Zoom with Matt Owens and Marc Jobst. By this point, I was pretty familiar with the IP and what the show was trying to achieve. I'd been working with the storyboards and previz and read all the scripts, and had become really excited about the content, the cast, the production design, and everything else that was happening during pre-production and the first weeks of shoot. I also had the support of Netflix behind me, so in the end, it all came together, and I was hired on to cut the second block of episodes (episodes 5 and 6).
What were some of the challenges when it comes to controlling pacing throughout the episodes you worked on? 
Tessa Verfuss:  Pacing is, in general, one of the most critical aspects of editing. On One Piece, you have the added dynamic of being an adaptation where a huge amount of story is being condensed into only eight episodes. So a lot has to be achieved in a short period of time without losing the audience. It's also an adventure show, and things need to be fun, often with a touch of humour, and there are, of course, action set-pieces like fights and battles. All of that suggests the pace needs to be really quick and the cutting really snappy.
Luckily for me, that naturally leans into my own style of editing. Most editors start with a relatively loose, slower assembly and then tighten as the edit progresses through the various stages to picture lock. I tend to take the approach of cutting as tightly as I possibly can early on, trimming as many frames as I can get away with off every single cut point. Then I take a step back and look for the moments that need to breathe within each scene and add time back in. That shift in pace within a scene really helps punctuate the important lines of dialogue or looks between characters and signals to the audience that this is when they need to sit up and pay attention. I think of it in a musical sense, where you can have this build-up and acceleration of the rhythm until you hit a pause, hold your breath, and then let the beat drop. The same thing applies across the episode as a whole, where most of the show can have the fast-cutting high energy you'd expect, but some scenes just need to slow right down at key points to land.
I applied the same approach to the episodes I took over later – episodes 1 and 2. Both episodes got a big tightening pass, and then along with the showrunners, we found those moments that needed to breathe the most. I took a couple of minutes off the run time this way while losing virtually no shots or lines of dialogue.
PH: Can you share what your experience was like working with the composing team? 
Tessa Verfuss: Music was initially a bit of a challenge for us as editors when we were selecting temp scores to use in the early cuts. We knew that the goal musically was that this shouldn't sound too “piratey”, it needed to be something fresh that didn't immediately remind you of every other pirate show or movie out there. It also needed to not be something too specific to our own world, so there was no needle drop at all. We also wanted each block of episodes to have something slightly unique to them musically.
So for episodes 5 and 6, we are at the Baratie, and we meet Sanji for the first time. He is introduced in a cooking montage, and I initially tried 3 different versions cut to different styles of music, including opera. The idea was that he has an air of sophistication to him, but we needed something a bit less specific, so we ended up working with jazz as the basis for his temp score. Other scenes and moments were much harder to pin down, and we went back to the drawing board without a temp score a number of times.
Fortunately, when composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli started providing us with scores, things started really coming together musically. Working with them was a dream because they were very open and receptive and just so incredibly enthusiastic about the show. We could really bounce ideas around in those meetings together, and their turnaround times were incredible when we needed to get something new into a cut that was going out on a deadline.
Something they brought to the table that we really hadn't been able to get at with temp was that each main character would have different instrumentation built into their themes. So Nami had a flute, for example, and Zoro had traditional Japanese instruments, and Mihawk had a bit of a flamenco influence in his scenes. It really helped establish that this universe is as big and varied as our own without pinning the entire soundtrack down to a single style. Even the theme tune over the title card has a slightly different sound to it in each episode, which matches up to the characters and locations for that episode.
PH: How did you navigate portraying human emotions and motivations in your work? 
Tessa Verfuss: Something that's typical of manga and anime is the use of extreme close-ups to portray intense emotions, and that's something we were conscious of with the live-action adaptation. The majority of the show is shot using wide-angle lenses, even for close-up shots, which becomes visually interesting and dramatic. As an editor, conveying a character's emotions has a lot to do with choosing when to use the tightest and most interesting close-up angles for dramatic effect. I personally quite like to cut from a wider angle to an extreme close-up to accent a dramatic line of dialogue rather than always trying to match shot sizes between two characters talking to each other. That way, there's a visual cue to shifting emotions during a scene or perhaps a change in a power dynamic between antagonists, which really keeps things engaging. We even ended up doing a fair amount of tighter re-framing or digital creep zooms in the post to really make the most of the close-up coverage as a storytelling tool.
Once you're in those close-ups, it's all about performance and all credit there goes to our incredible cast. Episode 6 has a number of emotional scenes in it, so my task there was to find the performances that felt the most authentic and grounded. So much about the One Piece world is larger-than-life, but these are the moments where we want to have a genuine connection to these characters. Even the villains have motivations behind their actions, so allowing them those close-up moments is just as important so that by the time you're in a fight with them, the stakes feel real. 
PH: How did your experience cutting fight scenes from your work on Warrior and pirate ship battles from Black Sails help with this project? 
Tessa Verfuss: With a ship battle, you're dealing with a mix of practical effects and VFX shots, and you want to make the most of the former while trying to be as economical as possible with the latter. Most of the battle is covered by two or three cameras, and I've learned from Black Sails that you can use all of those angles together to really build up a big cannonball impact, for example, or give the sense of a bigger swarm of pirates boarding a ship. You really want to keep up the energy and use as much of the coverage as possible.
With fight scenes, something I've learned from Warrior is to avoid cutting on the impact of a fist landing because it feels too much like you're hiding the fact that it's a stunt performance. There are some tricks to do this by manipulating the speed of the shot, and this was a bit more difficult in fight scenes involving Luffy because of his rubber powers. When that impact is happening in CG, it becomes a lot harder to judge the exact timing and physics of the punch or kick. So it would be the reaction to the hit landing rather than the hit itself that needed to be manipulated. 
Probably the most important thing about editing a fight scene, though, is to remember that for all the action and cool choreography, you are still telling a story where you need to feel for the characters, feel the tension between them, and understand the stakes. So once again, it's down to performance and the use of close-ups. What was nice about One Piece is that there is room to exaggerate and play stylistically with the character moments within a fight scene. You can hold those close-ups for longer or have these fun push-ins, and it's something that feels right within the context of an anime adaptation.
PH: Can you share how you also operated as VFX editor?
Tessa Verfuss: While I was still hoping to land an editing role on the show, I was very pleased to hear that the VFX department was looking for a local VFX editor to join the team. That's pretty unusual in Cape Town, especially for a project of this scale. My role began a couple of weeks before the shoot started and continued until I started editing on the second block. My main responsibility at such an early stage was to edit together storyboards of the biggest VFX sequences so that everyone could get a sense of how many cuts might be in the scene and what sort of duration might be required for the shots. I did the same with some previz sequences. Once shooting started, I was responsible for organizing the dailies of any VFX sequences so that it was easily available for viewing by the VFX team, who could just walk across the CTFS lot to sit with me. Along with my LA-based counterpart, we started developing the Filemaker Pro database for the show, and we also started doing some pulls for test shots that would be sent out to the vendors for R and D purposes. Finally, I also started doing some temp VFX work in Avid for the shots that were coming in while they were being assembled by block 1 editor Kevin D. Ross.
When I switched over to editing, VFX assistant editor Cornē Gildenhuys took over. Much as I was ecstatic to be going over to editing, I was really grateful to have done the bit of VFX editing work. I learned a lot in a really short span of time about the complexities of a big VFX-heavy show that I hadn't been exposed to before. I also got to learn more about the IP and the show in general long before I started cutting, which meant I was incredibly well prepared when I started getting my own footage to edit. Knowing exactly what to expect in the VFX-heavy sequences made the editing of those scenes much easier, where I otherwise might have been intimidated by cutting something with so much CG.
PH: How much footage did you end up having to edit? 
Tessa Verfuss: I can't give you exact numbers, but I had a really nice amount of varied coverage without it feeling like I was drowning in footage. The episode 5 and 6, director, Tim Southam, knew what he wanted, so it was fairly easy to understand his intentions with the coverage I was given. It was also nice to have some performance options so by the time we sat together in the edit, we could play around and mine those perfect character moments that the cast was giving us.
The action sequences, however, were enormous, shooting between 3 and 5 days each. Those sequences can be a beast to work through, but I never found them to be overly complex to assemble. The pieces slotted together nicely it was just a matter of getting through the volume. Overall it was an incredibly long shoot, averaging over 20 shoot days per episode.
PH: In your opinion, how will the industry (especially in the editing sphere) continue to evolve?
Tessa Verfuss: Remote work will continue to create new ways of working and new opportunities. Being able to edit a big Hollywood show without leaving Cape Town at all is a game-changer for me personally and will hopefully lead to other exciting projects in the future. From what I can tell, working remotely from home isn't going away any time soon, which means the experience for the directors or producers of cutting with an editor would be no different whether that editor is in the same city or on the other side of the world.
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