When it comes to film and television, editing can make or break the vision. Editors piece together the scenes that were shot to create and build tension, allow humor to flow through, and ultimately develop an emotional through-line that audiences can resonate with. This is especially true with dramas that contain many characters as the tension builds throughout the series.
With the assistance of a translator, I recently sat down on Zoom with Nam Na-young, the sole editor of Squid Game, to discuss her work on the show. Nam is an experienced editor in the world of film and, other than a K-drama she mentioned while we chatted, hasn’t had much experience doing television series. Nam worked as the negative editor (a job that requires cutting motion picture negative to exactly match the final edit) on Bong Joon Ho’s acclaimed film Mother (2009), as well as editing Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil (2010) and has previously worked with director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s on his films The Fortress (2017) and Miss Granny (2014) before the two teamed up again for Squid Game.
During our talk, Nam told me about the challenges that her stamina faced in editing Squid Game, how she kept the tension building (even through more humorous moments), and even alluded to a scene that might end up in the second season of Squid Game.
Tyler Doster: You’ve edited so many films and your resume is so impressive. What brought you on to do television for Squid Game?
Nam Na-young: Well, what brought me to the TV screen was Director Hwang asked me to come along. So that is why I did. I mean, I worked with Director Hwang on various feature films of his, so he asked me for this project. So I was willing to join.
TD: Was it challenging coming from a film-oriented background changing to nine hour-long episodes?
NNY: It was, I would say, physically challenging stamina wise. But other than that, everything was okay. But it’s nine hours long, as you said, so it requires longer hours of work. And I struggled a bit with my stamina as I got older.
TD: Does that make you want to do more TV?
NNY: Well, I want to do another series if there is good work out there. I actually worked on a K-drama before Squid Game, and that actually helped me a lot in this project. And I would love to do another series if there is a good opportunity.
TD: How did doing the K-drama get you ready for Squid Game?
NNY: Well, the K-drama editing, it’s almost like a real-time show. The actual shooting and the editing happens almost at the same time in parallel, so I have to be always on standby, losing my sleep. Whenever the source video comes in, I have to start editing. So that is completely unimaginable in the world of feature film. And because I actually experienced that before Squid Game, well, Squid Game was actually closer to a movie-making environment, so I felt a lot easier getting used to Squid Game‘s series-making environment.
TD: That’s very impressive. I didn’t know that about K-dramas.
NNY: Well, it’s not the same for all the K-dramas, I would say. But when you’re not so lucky, then you might end up doing that.
TD: Is it easy to keep an emotional through line while keeping the tension building each episode?
NNY: I would say that it’s neither easy nor difficult when you just follow the script. Everything is written in the script so as you do the preliminary first editing, then you would just follow the script, and that would naturally build tension and the emotions of the characters. So I didn’t really find it so difficult.
TD: How do you know when to break the tension with a cut in a scene? Is it instinct? Is it just something you know?
NNY: Well, I would first read through the script and identify what are the important aspects in the script, and I would do the editing according to my understanding. And there are cases where I would do it based on my gut feelings and I would engage with the directors a lot to talk about them. But even before I talk with the director, I try to do my best to understand everything that I can in advance. So I didn’t really have any difficulty working on the breaking of the cuts in the scene to increase the tensions.
TD: There’s also humor in the show which is, at some points, kind of surprising, given that it can be such a morbid show full of death. How do you cut around that and make the humor stick while keeping that tension going?
NNY: So whenever I do the editing of the humor scenes, the paces were set at a very fast pace because the tempo matters to create that laughter from the audience. And in the scenes where the tensions matter, I identify whether the tension is around the event or around the characters and adjust the length of the cuts according to my understanding. And what is most important in editing, I would say, is the timing, the tempo. So for the humor scenes, to create the burst of laughter, you have to cut them in at a fast pace. And for the scenes where it is quite high in tension, then you have to build the tension. So I did the editing to build the tension.
TD: In a story that spans so many characters, both main characters, side characters, there’s over 400 contestants in the Squid Game, then there’s the authority figures, how do you balance the time with the main cast and the side characters so that it feels like a real situation, while giving focus to the main characters?
NNY: Well, that is, in fact, the point that I discussed the most with Director Hwang because in feature filmmaking, you don’t really have much time to spend on the extra characters. But then this is a drama series, and Director Hwang and I both agreed that all the game participants’ backstory had to be somehow highlighted because, I mean, there are of course main characters in the show, but the smaller characters, side characters, can actually be me. So I was actually empathizing with all these side characters as well and think about what I would feel if I were in their shoes and imagined a lot about their backstory and tried to bring that onto screen. And I made a lot of efforts around it because that will actually create a sense of realism to the show.
TD: And I think that realism really sticks because of that. What was the biggest challenge of editing the season, other than the physical stamina that you’ve already mentioned?
NNY: Well, to be honest, I really didn’t have much challenge working on this series because most of the staff members were the old faces that I’ve worked with a lot of times and we already had a lot of discussions beforehand and we shared opinions a lot beforehand. So there was really no big challenge to me. I would say that I was just enjoying the project because I was just able to focus on the title fully.
TD: Was there anything in a director’s cut or any other left-on-the-cutting-room-floor scenes or anything that you wish would’ve made it to the final cut?
NNY: I would say there are more cuts that are cut out from a feature film because of the constraint of the running time. But in the series, there was no need to cut so much. But there is a particular cut that I want to mention, but I want to actually avoid the spoiler of the second season because that cut that I cut is actually related to the second season. The final episode of Squid Game ends at the airport, but there was another cut that is following that scene. But that is something that would be a spoiler, so I would just cut short here. And other than that, there were not many cuts that were made. There were scenes that were shortened, but there was not a single scene that was completely cut out.
TD: Well, I certainly won’t ask you to go into any spoiler territory.
NNY: Wait and see!
TD: I can do that. So some shows have two or three editors per season, and I wanted to ask: Do you think it made your job easier or more difficult to be doing the entire thing by yourself?
NNY: Well, I always work by myself. I have never experienced a single project where I have to work with other editors, so I am actually curious: In other countries, is it common for a title to have multiple editors?
TD: Yes, definitely. I’ve interviewed other editors, like couples of editors, who do things together and they’ll split the episodes half and half, basically, so I wanted to know if that was easier for you basically.
NNY: Well, I don’t have that experience so far. (laughs) Because I’m greedy, I want to do it all by myself.
TD: Well, I can’t blame you. So my last question for you is, and you’ve kind of already touched on season two, but I wanted to ask if you know if you’ll be back for season two?
NNY: Well, unless I mess up big time, it’s probably me who’s going to do the editing for the second season. I actually had a call with Director Hwang recently, and he is devoting his time on script writing at the moment.
TDr: Awesome. I want to thank you so much for your time. Your work was incredible on Squid Game, so this was really a treat to be able to talk to you.
NNY: Thank you for enjoying the show. I appreciate it a lot, and I will see you again on season two.
Season one of Squid Game is currently streaming on Netflix. Nam Na-young is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series.
This interview has been translated and edited for clarity.