I have been working in late night television for Conan O’Brien for nearly 10 years, currently as the lead editor for Conan on the TBS network. Late night television has an extraordinarily demanding pace. An old colleague of mine used to refer to it as the “speed chess” of editing. It demands that your first instincts when editing are the best ones. The pace also puts extraordinary pressure on your writers and producers. I like to think of editors as the pilots hired to bring the plane in for a landing that may have already lost an engine, so it’s important that you maintain balance and focus.
I am the father to three amazing kiddos with special needs. My first daughter was born with the amyoplasia form of arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. She is also nonverbal. My youngest daughter was born with amniotic banding syndrome. For her, it means she only has a few fully developed fingers and a prosthesis on one of her legs. We’ve addressed her physical challenges through surgery and she has lots of fun sprinting around with her “robot leg,” which is what we call her prosthesis. We are in the middle of adopting our son and hope to bring him home in the fall. He has similar orthopedic challenges to our second daughter.
I take my jobs as editor and as a father very seriously, but it is also important to note that I am happy. Here are some things that I have learned over the years. I have made mistakes in every one of these rules, but I try every day to be better.
On January 11, 2018, Donald J. Trump, the sitting POTUS, called the Caribbean nation of Haiti a “s***hole.” The mainstream news outlets did little more than give airtime to the usual talking heads clapping back, while most of the late night talk show hosts capitalized on the ready-made monologue material.
But at a time when a few humorists are doing some of the most important journalistic work on TV (John Oliver and Bassem Youssef come to mind), Conan O’Brien decided, right then and there, to travel to Haiti in order to set the record straight. It wasn’t an unprecedented move—he’d previously done shows from Mexico, Israel, Armenia, and more.
What was different was the time frame.
Five years ago, my daughter was born with a rare condition called arthrogryposis as well as additional cognitive delays. My wife quickly gravitated towards the internet support community to learn as much as she could, while I was feeling stuck, asking myself the larger questions about my daughter’s path in life. Right after her first birthday, we found ourselves attending a National Support Conference for Arthrogryposis. It was there I met “Scarman.”
Ward “Scarman” Foley was born with arthrogryposis and has spent the last 30 years giving speeches across the nation and abroad. He is also a published author and hospice volunteer. He spoke at that conference and engaged new parents, old parents, teens and adults who had never met another person with the same condition. These were his words:
My name is Robert James Ashe. We’ve never had the pleasure of meeting but I’ve been a huge admirer of both, you and Apple, for a very long time. I’ve worked in film and television for the past 20 years using Mac products to plan, design, edit and create works to entertain the viewing public. In my household, you will find Macbook Pros, iPads, iPad Pros, iPhones and a really old mac pro used by myself and my wife. My oldest daughter uses her iPad as her voice. One of the biggest things I’ve always admired about Apple was their commitment to giving people with disabilities access to your equipment. It is because of this fact that I am writing you today to make one small humble request. I am requesting that you add medical terms to the Mac’s spelling dictionary. The word I personally am after is “arthrogryposis.”
My first daughter was born with the amyoplasia form of arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. She has extremely low muscle tone on all four of her limbs, no bicep movement in her arms, her elbows don’t bend all the way and her knees don’t straighten. She is also nonverbal and currently participates in ABA therapythroughout the week.
My youngest daughter was born with amniotic banding syndrome, for her, it means she only has a few fully developed fingers and she had to have her leg amputated. She’s addressed her physical challenges through surgery and has lots of fun sprinting around with her “robot leg,” which is what we call her prosthesis.
I take my job as a father of a child with disabilities very seriously, but it is also important to note that I am happy. I have two beautiful daughters and an amazing wife.
Here are some things I have learned along the way that I think can help anyone who knows a family like mine:
Don’t believe what Fiona Ashe may tell you. Her parents did not purchase her at Target, though after hearing that claim enough times, her mother finally agreed to it.
“Two weeks ago in the car,” Angie Ashe says, “she was like, ‘Where did you buy me from?’ I just kind of chuckled. ‘We didn’t buy you from anywhere. Do you mean where were you born?’ ‘No, where did you buy me?’ I couldn’t answer her correctly. I kept saying, ‘You were born in China; we adopted you.’ Finally, I said, ‘You want me to say we bought you from Target?’ She just smiled. ‘Yeah, you bought me from Target.’ OK!”
As charming a story as that would make, the truth is equal to it—and considerably more plausible. It starts with longstanding plans that Angie and her husband, Rob, had made to adopt a child. “That was on the table even before we got married,” Angie says. Their intentions became more focused after their daughter Elliot was born with arthrogryposis, a disease that disrupts joint movement. Elliot’s case is extreme: Born with her arms stuck straight and her legs bent, she has been a patient at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles since infancy, undergoing numerous surgeries and years of physical therapy.
We were tired. It was a long day.
We had decided to take our daughters for a surprise afternoon trip down to Disneyland. They love that place more than anything any of us has ever loved in our lives. Our visits to Disneyland are usually magical. We vowed to never take preschoolers, yet somehow we’ve been there four times in the last year.
This trip was different. The drive was an unusually brutal two-hour journey that got us there in the late afternoon. It was also our first trip to Disneyland with our oldest daughter in a wheelchair. She was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, and she has to wear braces in order to walk. She enjoys walking, but she’s been recovering from a major surgery and hasn’t been allowed to walk much over the last three months.
This was also our first trip to Disneyland for our youngest daughter’s prosthetic leg. She was born with a condition called amniotic banding syndrome which has left her without a usable right foot. Thanks to surgery in December, she’s now running around with her new “robot leg,” as it’s called in our household.
I used to hate the beach. I loathed the bright, hot sun that makes my eyes malfunction and my pale skin burn brighter than the reddest lobster after three minutes of exposure. I couldn’t stand the smell of the sea, a smell that can only be described as ten-day-old seaweed covered in iodine and set on fire in my nostrils. I was never comfortable with the fact that no matter how careful I was, I was always a magnet for small packets of sand that found their way into my car and laundry for days to come.
Then, I became my daughter’s father.
Rob Ashe's daughter was 4 days old when he first saw the word "arthrogryposis," written on her incubator in the NICU. Elliot, now 4, had been born with severe contraction in her major joints, resulting in extremely low muscle tone. Only one in 3,000 newborns has the condition. "There still isn't a ton of research," says Ashe, an Emmy-nominated editor on TBS' Conan. Geneticist Dr. Judith G. Hall, who has studied arthrogryposis extensively, had one big piece of advice for Ashe when she learned about his line of work: “You need to get celebrities involved.”
Bouncing up and down and chattering, 2-year-old Fiona wielded her popsicle like a staff and climbed atop her mother’s lap until she felt tall enough to command the attention of the room.
Once settled, she sang, crooning nonsensically to her sister laying on the rug.
Noticing her sister’s glasses had fallen askew, Fiona zoomed to the rescue, knowing 4-year-old Elliot can’t adjust the frames herself. Well-meaning but not yet gentle, as most 2-year-olds, Fiona picked up the glasses only to be swooped up by her mother, who then hugged her daughters and helped Elliot stand.
To the Ashe family, almost nothing is as they expected; they’ve adjusted to a “new normal,” meeting each chaotic moment with a laugh and hug.
Also during the day, a panel examined what moderator Norman Hollyn (The Cotton Club) calls the "lean forward moment." Hollyn — who is head of the editing track at USC's School of Cinematic Arts — defined this as the moment in a film that causes you to lean forward because it's crucial to the plot. He illustrated this by asking each editor on the panel to select a "lean forward" clip from a movie that they did not edit.
That included clips from Aliens and JFK, but it was Conan's head editor, Rob Ashe Jr., who got the biggest reaction from the audience when he announced that he had selected the "Married Life" clip from Pixar's Up — the emotional montage that shows the joy and heartbreak of a married couple.
By the end of the clip, the reaction was exactly what the audience had anticipated. The lights came up and sniffling and sobbing were heard, with editors wiping their eyes across the room.
Ash recalled how he tried to fight tears when he first saw Up in a theater. "I felt betrayed! I thought, 'You're a cartoon!' " he said. "By the end [of the 'Married Life' sequence] — and I'm not a big crier — I was holding my wife's hand and shaking. That part in the doctor's office, I remember leaning forward."
"It was the answer to my question as to how they were going to make me care about an old man who doesn't like people. Imagine taking that scene out of the movie. Then he's just a cranky old man," he said. "I couldn't think of a more lean forward moment of anything else I had seen."
Being parents of a child with special needs opens up a whole new world you wouldn't even know exists until you become one. It's an inspiring world, but it can also be very challenging. One Santa Clarita couple accepted this challenge and then some.
All signs were pointing to a healthy baby girl for Rob and Angie Ashe. Doctors didn't see the clues in the ultrasound.
"We did not find out until she was born. It was a surprise in the OR," said Angie. "And it was a blessing actually that we didn't know ahead of time because there's nothing you can do."
Their daughter, Elliot, was diagnosed with a severe form of arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects about one in 10,000 babies. These children have stiff joints and abnormally developed muscles. The cause is unknown.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
We are a rag tag group of varmints who come together Monday through Thursday to make a hour of late night television for enjoyable consumption by the general public. That show being Conan O’Brien’s Conan on TBS.
WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Editor/Opening Titles Designer for Conan. I also do the opening titles for Deon Cole’s Black Box on TBS.
WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I along with lead editor Dan Dome and editor Dave Grecu edit pre-taped segments, remotes and mock commercials for that day’s show. After the taping, we edit down segments and bring the show to time. I also render the opening titles of the show every day and do a redesign if we take the show on the road.
Rob Ashe (@robashejr) is one of three editors working on the Burbank-based Conan O’Brien show on TBS. Duties are typically assigned by speciality, with Ashe doing mock commercials, Dave Grecu working on remote packages and lead editor Dan Dome (pictured with Ashe, below right) doing a little bit of everything and overseeing the workflow.
When I asked Ashe about some tools he just can’t live without, he had some technical offerings and some that were a little more old school.
First up, the free tool Kuler from Adobe (kuler.adobe.com). Ashe calls it worth its weight in gold. “I work with different color schemes a lot on the show and it’s tough to find complementary colors for what you are doing at the time. Kuler makes this easy”
He used Kuler on a sketch a few weeks back called 3 for 5, based on the big-pot Powerball Lottery. “The concept was, so many people waste money on lottery tickets, why not have this new lottery game that is a guaranteed winner every time. So for a $5 lottery ticket, you are guaranteed to win $3. It had large titles to it and I had to find a lot of complementary colors. When you are dealing with reds in a video, it’s tough to find something that’s not going to bleed and just fall apart. It’s a ridiculously-fast tool.”
A free iPad app that Ashe finds handy is Ideas, also from Adobe, a touchscreen drawing program. “For a while, every Thursday we’d somewhat change the show open and create a :10 fun animation. So I would use Adobe Ideas to express how I wanted the animation to go. What’s cool is I can bring in a still of the standard animation layout and draw on it. You can circle the moon, put an arrow on it and say, ‘I want this to go down.’ When you are done, you can email what you drew; it helps to make the pitch easier for the graphics guys, who can then put in the real work and do their thing based off whatever suggestion I’ve given them.”
The editing team, which famously and humorously bashed FCP X in a video introduced by Conan on the show after its initial release and made a viral video of their happiness with Adobe’s Premiere Pro and its “Freddy Mercury Engine,” still make use of Final Cut 7 and other Adobe Creative Suite 6 offerings, including Photoshop and After Effects with plug-ins from Red Giant Software and Video Copilot’s Element 3D.
“Element 3D is a really down and dirty way of getting 3D text going. It’s got really good texturing, which to me is its single biggest strength. Being able to texture 3D shades and stuff in Elements in 3D is great. If we ever need anything more complex, we go to Cinema 4D.”
One particularly interesting project that used some of those tools took place months back when Conan reported that a talk show in China was using an open that stole parts of Conan’s opening title sequence. “We were going back and forth taking jabs at each other between the two shows in a funny way, and it was starting to come to an end. That morning it was like, what’s a good final button. It was noon, and as a joke, I suggested that I should just make them their own open. The writers and Conan said, ‘That’s great. You have four hours.’ So me and the amazing graphics guys hauled ass — lead Eric McGilloway, Steve Robinson and Pierre Bernard Jr. It was all Photoshop and After Effects.” Rublight (pictured, left) was a recent mock commercial edited by Ashe.
Another piece of “equipment” that Ashe puts to good use is the basketball hoop behind his door. “One of my first duties in the morning is to update the open for the show. Typically, there are four panels per show: first guest, second guest, and a comedian or band or special performance, and then episode titles. It usually takes 20-25 minutes to render the names, so the hoop comes in handy. I put them in the cue and make the best use of my time!”
The piggy bank that lives in the editing and graphics area helps the team save money, which is a value in itself! “It’s called the Fuck-Up Jar,” explains Ashe. “If anyone makes a major mistake, they have to put in a dollar.”
In March of 2010, it was announced that Conan O'Brien would be embarking on a three month national stand-up comedy tour. I was lucky enough to be assigned Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog's segment. I worked on the pieces at home, communicating with Robert Smigel (the man behind Triumph), and head writer Mike Sweeney through email. The experience was the first time I can remember editing for anyone without ever really talking to them. It was also the only time I was able to hear the live reactions of six thousand people to something I edited.