Akiko Iwakawa on Cutting a Super Bowl Spot and How Brands Can Work Better With Editors

Plus, Johnnie Walker and a Netflix Docuseries

Akiko Iwakawa spent much of the past three years editing at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic, connecting via Zoom and other tools. And while she acknowledges that there are benefits to working remotely, the editor dearly missed collaborating with creatives in person.

Which is why she was thrilled to head back to an editing suite at Rock Paper Scissors' NYC office with the creative team from Anomaly to cut Crown Royal's Super Bowl LVII spot.

"As soon as we were sitting in the room, it was just like, 'This is how we do it.' It was just nice to be in that kind of collaborative environment," Iwakawa says.

Crown Royal's Big Game debut finds rock legend Dave Grohl thanking Canada for giving the world everything from peanut butter and poutine to Eugene Levy. Not to mention the game of football! It's clearly comedic, though Iwakawa is best known for sculpting visually-driven work as well as documentary-style spots for clients like Pepsi, Gillette and WW.

Standouts on her reel include Dick's Sporting Goods' mesmerizing celebration of female athletes, and the Johnnie Walker "Black Label" commercial, an artistic, golden-hued blend of lava and cowboy culture.

Iwakawa has also edited music videos, including the Jonah Hill-directed Vampire Weekend clip for "Sunflower ft. Steve Lacy."

Her documentary credits include the gripping Netflix series Lenox Hill, which highlights the heroism of four doctors at a New York City hospital.

Below, Iwakawa delves into her influences, shares advice on how directors and agencies can best work with editors, and explains how her career began.

MUSE: The Crown Royal spot marked the second time you've had work in the Super Bowl. What did it mean for you as an editor to be part of that showcase again?

Akiko Iwakawa: You definitely feel like you got to a certain place when you get trusted with work that matters a lot to the agency and client. I'm at a point where I have enough work and relationships out there so that this can happen. A lot of Super Bowl tends to be comedy, so it's hard for someone [with my style] to break in.

This was my first time [working] with Jake Scott, but I have worked with the Anomaly creatives for years. Jake worked with these creatives a lot, too. So, the synergy of the team was amazing—everybody just shooting ideas around all the time. They shot a lot more than what's shown, because Dave Grohl can riff on things. He was so natural in front of a camera and would ad lib. We had a lot of amazing footage we had to leave on the editing floor.

The Johnnie Walker "Black Label" spot is a great example of your visual prowess.

The concept was basically, visualize the taste. They wanted it to be visceral. [Director] Matt Lambert shot all these crazy images—smoke and lava and a sax player—on a bunch of different mediums.

This spot is all visuals and sound design. Did you have a script?

No. There was a map of things to hit. But they were just like, "Do whatever you want." I don't get that very often. The first presentation, they gave me a standing ovation. It was so sweet. I love this kind of stuff—random images that don't necessarily connect, but they have a feeling, and I need to articulate the feeling. I did a ton of sound design to make this dreamy, sort of scary, but curious and fascinating piece of film with a rich gold palette.

How often do you have that kind of freedom?

I guess it depends on the job, you know? Sometimes, you stick with the script, and then sometimes, you get to do something like this, which is more free. Even with scripted things, my first pass is always play. I just get all my ideas out and play with everything. I just try different combinations of shots or effects, anything I can think of. Just get it out. Sometimes, none of it makes it into the actual edit. But I always need to do that for my own sake. Otherwise, we get a little too cerebral and too intellectual about edits. 

How can directors and agencies help editors do their jobs better and get the results they want?

First of all, give us a little more time. And I think they get the best result from me when they don't over-brief me about the shoot. Some people get really specific with, "Oh, we like this take." It just gets in your head sometimes, and it stops you from purely looking at the work. Give me a clear view of what you want it to be and what the client wants it to be. Who is the demographic you are selling it to? Who is the competitor? That information definitely helps. 

Maybe this is not directly answering your question, but I always get the best result when I edit something and present it as a work-in-progress and have a ton of collaboration on it. Sometimes, we don't need to do that. It feels close to what it ends up being. But I think when everyone's open, including myself, to changing—and changing it drastically if necessary—there are always better results than approaching it like, "This is the best edit!" I like to be wrong sometimes, because otherwise what's the fun of it? You're not always right. You are sometimes wrong, and it's better to give yourself that permission.

Your credits also include the Netflix docuseries Lenox Hill. Can you talk about working on that project?

They showed me the pilot episode, and I was like, "I have to do it." It's about doctors and the medical world, and I've never cried so much watching footage. The directors, Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz, bring their cameras everywhere—the operating room, the locker room where the doctors change, their homes. There were three women editors, and we collaborated. [Iwakawa cut the series with Helen Yum and Shatz.] We would swap stories for each other's episodes. I edited this at home, and we were still in Covid.

It must have been intense editing this during the height of the pandemic.

Surreal. Very emotional. You heard those ambulances. It was a constant sound in New York City. And then I'm looking at footage of what happens when those ambulances get to the hospital. It's incredible, the journey medical workers went through. It's our experiences times a thousand—the fear and the chaos, trying to make sense of it and caring for people.

How did you get into editing?

I am from Japan. I came here [to the United States] for high school. I was only going to stay through high school, but I never left. I went to film school at NYU. I always knew I wanted to go into the film and TV world. My parents were theater actors. So, at some point in my life, I wanted to be an actor. But by middle school, I was like, "No, I actually want to be a director. I'm going to film school."

And then during film school, I realized that I am most comfortable in the editing room. It was a hard thing to admit to myself. I think it's kind of ironic that I chose a profession where I don't work with actors. I judge the actors, and given that my parents are actors, it makes so much sense.

So it was in college that I realized I wanted to edit, and then my editing teacher recruited me to be her assistant for the documentary she was cutting. That was my first job, and then I made the move into the commercial world.

What do your parents think of you being an editor?

Whenever I show my work to them, they don't get it. They're like, "But you’re not in it!"

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