Nena Erb Embraces "Insecure" Feeling
Nena Erb (photo courtesy of Cinematic Red)
Editor scores her 3rd career Emmy nomination, 2nd for the HBO series created by Issa Rae

Editor Nena Erb, ACE earned her third career Emmy nomination last week; it was for the “Choice, Okay?!” episode of Insecure (HBO) directed by Kevin Bray. This marks her second such nod for Insecure in the Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series category, the first coming in 2020 (shared with additional editor Lynarion Hubbard) and yielding an Emmy win for the “Lowkey Trying” episode. 

The nominations for Insecure mean a great deal to Erb in different respects. On one front, she views a nod as recognition for the entire Insecure team, including for such artists as series creator Issa Rae, director Bray and cinematographer Carolin Cosa (who shot “Choices, Okay!?). They and varied others all contributed their vision to Insecure, including the episode now making the cut in the picture editing category.

Being an Emmy nominee and winner for Insecure is also most meaningful for Erb due to her personal roots.  An Asian American and person of color, Erb recalled her family moving to the U.S. from Asia. She went to school in Inglewood, Calif., and knew first-hand that community as well as Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights and other South Los Angeles neighborhoods. “We were a family that didn’t speak any English yet the community welcomed us. South Central L.A. is never portrayed in a positive light in the media. Then I saw Insecure and that was the South L.A. I knew, shining a beautiful light on that community.” 

Thus when Erb was asked to join the Insecure fold for season 3, she said it was “the easiest ‘yes’ ever.” Erb might have gotten involved in the show earlier but she had already committed herself to edit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend when an overture came her way to take on season 2 of Insecure. “I just hoped that they would remember me for season 3 if they needed an editor--and they did.”  

Last week Insecure garnered a total of three Emmy nominations for its fifth and final season--the editing nod for Erb, Outstanding Leading Actress in a Comedy Series for Rae, and Outstanding Cinematography For a Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour) for Ava Berkofsky (on the strength of the “Reunited, OK?!” episode). 

Erb--whose run on Insecure stretched from season 3 through 5--pointed to Rae as the driving force behind the show. “Issa is so incredible, She sets the tone for everybody. Everybody’s voice is important. Everyone is encouraged to speak up and take chances. It’s liberating to be able to craft stories without fear of failure.”

There was plenty of opportunity to fail editorially in the “Choice, Okay?!” episode, particularly given director Bray’s desire to give the appearance of a one-take, continuous shot look, aka a “oner,” to the sequence in which the Real Issa and the Mirror Isa are together--without using a split screen or cutting away to coverage. Through invisible edits, Erb was able to help facilitate this desired effect. Rae is playing two different Issa characters, each shot separately, so she’s not able to perform in reaction to her other self. It’s impossible  this way for the timing of both of Rae’s performances to line up perfectly. The wrong pacing, obviously, could undermine a scene. Thus the responsibility was placed on Erb to manipulate the performances and determine when to cut so that the edits are imperceptible to viewers. Erb had to figure out where she had pauses that could be slowed down as well as places where she could speed up so it would look like the two Issas were having a conversation in realtime in the same space--even though that’s not the reality of what was shot. Deploying Time Warp FX and Ani-mattes helped Erb attain this delicate balance.

Erb is a master of artful transition in more ways than one. Consider her career arc. Erb made the segue from nonfiction reality fare to fiction television at a high level. Erb’s very first Emmy win came in 2016 for Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program (shared with editors Steve Lichtenstein, Craig A. Colton and Dan Golding) on the basis of the “Accident Waiting to Happen” episode of Project Greenlight. Over time, though, Erb began to gain a foothold in fictional narrative TV, among the big breaks being the Gabrielle Union-starring series Being Mary Jane, which in turn down the road led to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Insecure.

Erb garnered ACE Eddie Award nominations in 2019 and 2021 for Insecure, and in 2020 for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Her other notable work includes Apple TV’s Little America series. She’s had a hand in series episodes such as “The Son,” which deals with a gay man’s struggle for safety and love as he attempts a harrowing immigration to the U.S., and “The Silence” introducing us to immigrants in love but confined to a place/situation where sound/speaking is forbidden.

Erb shared that her biggest takeaway or lesson learned from her experience on Insecure has been “to trust my gut and know that my voice matters. Being raised Asian, especially female, I was taught to be very reserved and to speak when spoken to. With Insecure, being around so many incredible women who are powerful and talented, it helped me find my voice, to stand up for myself, to feel okay about throwing out ideas. It’s been a life-changing experience.”

Erb added that Insecure has given her the chance to collaborate with “so many great female directors,” including Kerry Washington, Natasha Rockwell and the aforementioned Berkofsky (nominated this year for her cinematography).

As for what’s next, Erb is editing Downtown Owl, a feature directed by Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe. Linklater also wrote the screenplay for Downtown Owl, which is based on the 2008 novel of the same title by Chuck Klosterman, The film stars Rabe, Henry Golding, Ed Harris, Vanessa Hudgens, Finn Wittrock and Jack Dylan Grazer.

This is the 11th installment of a 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories which will explore the field of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy Series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Sunday), and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Monday, September 12.

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