The fifth episode of Netflix’s sci-fi series 3 Body Problem, “Judgement Day,” includes a harrowing sequence where a tanker passing through the Panama Canal is sliced into pieces by weapons called nanofibers, and editor Michael Ruscio joined the production to bring the episode to life.

The series is based on Liu Cixin’s novel of the same name and is created by Alexander Woo and Game of Thrones duo David Benioff and D.B. After an astrophysicist witnesses her father beaten to death during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she is recruited to a secret military base and responds to contact from an alien planet. It’s high-concept sci-fi storytelling with impressive visuals and intimate human relationships.

American Cinema Editors Award winner Ruscio brings a character-focused approach to the episode set around an intricate sequence that combines VFX and practical shots. Storylines set up in the front half of the season also start to converge alongside the devastating moment, and Ruscio caught up with the already moving production by watching cuts of the previous episodes, reading scripts and studying the previs materials. So, as the ship is castrated horizontally, the audience also sympathizes with the characters.

“[Jonathan Pryce] is the person you actually most care about at that moment, and we just go full tilt boogie on his demise, and we see it all,” shared Ruscio. “That was deliberate; people are running in those hallways, and there are students in the cafeteria, but with him, you really dial in on his end, and it’s pretty gruesome.”

Michael Ruscio spoke with Awards Focus about the reason he views objects as characters, why he always sides with a character when choosing performances, and why he recommends that editors take acting classes.

3 Body Problem. Episode 105 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024
3 Body Problem. Episode 105 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

Awards Focus: I want to start with how you became involved in 3 Body Problem, specifically with episode five, Judgement Day.

Michael Ruscio: Initially, two editors were in the UK when production started in November 2021. They reached episodes three and four and realized they would need to bring in somebody else for this episode. I was lucky enough to get the call, and I am very fortunate, as I know many of my sisters and brothers aren’t working at all in the business. It has been really tough since COVID and since the strike, and I was fortunate to have this opportunity to work with David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo.

AF: What was it like coming in mid-season when there were already other episodes being pieced together?

Ruscio: I watched whatever I could of the first four episodes and had conversations with Katie Weiland, who was initially meant to work on this episode. We talked about shooting in Piccadilly Circus and a bit about the team she was working with. After that initial meeting, I started working with my assistant, Josh Carley. We hadn’t worked together either, so we were hitting the ground running, finding our jam and finding out what the show was about. I read the first book and all the scripts and dove in pretty quickly.

AF: The episode is a turning point for the show and features a massive set piece around a ship and its inhabitants. What excited you about taking on the episode?

Ruscio: I felt a responsibility to the material and to the director, Minkie Spiro, who I knew and trusted that she would make the material all sing as well as what was in the previs material. Especially with the ship, there was this dance between VFX and practical and between what was imagined and what was going to be shot. The ship’s architecture was intricate, with many levels, so I felt dedicated to the task.

3 Body Problem. Liam Cunningham as Wade in episode 105 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Chris Baker/Netflix © 2024

AF: The episode starts with some story elements that have been building all season being resolved, like Auggie’s relief when the countdown fails to materialize.  

How did you approach building tension and pacing within the characters’ perspectives leading up to the boat sequence?

Ruscio: Knowing her anticipation of what she expected to see and dealing with that very slowly and carefully was important. It’s interesting that, as editors, something that should be talked about more often is that we need to really understand the character’s point of view. In this life-or-death situation in the series, particularly with this episode, the stakes are extreme, and everyone has high beliefs. Auggie has high beliefs as a scientist.

I often recommend that editors take an acting class because you can understand the process. I like to defend each character’s point of view without having them judge each other or themselves.

In choosing performances, that’s really key to finding that level of commitment to being on your character’s side. As an editor, I like to be on each character’s side and understand how it becomes a whole dramatic scene. She is very precise with each movement, touching a keyboard, looking up, and closing her eyes. It’s all calculated, in a way, so I was aware of all that while putting together that sequence in the lab.

AF: In that scene, the computer is almost like a third character getting its own coverage. How do you play with those inserts in the scene?

Ruscio: It was unlike a more typical insert; you’re right. The computer becomes a character. So, it’s important to anticipate what they might do and have that pause on what would typically be a computer screen in this case because it becomes an object of fear. I wanted to give everybody in that room their due.

AF: Another object of fear is the microphone Jonathan Pryce’s character Mike Evans speaks into to communicate with ‘Lord.’ Like you’re saying, it holds that presence as an object of dread on the boat with unsuspecting families going about their day. Can you talk about balancing humanity with the impending disaster on the ship?

Ruscio: Minkie [Spiro] and the showrunners very much wanted to have an element of humanity and we expressed that with the children. There’s a pre-scene where you see that there’s life on this boat; families are eating SpaghettiO, or whatever it is. It was interesting with Jonathan [Pryce] because we had to actually pull that speaker shot from another episode. Initially, we had this move around Jonathan, and it almost felt like he was waiting for something. So, we needed to clarify and put this in that wasn’t scripted, but we pulled that from another episode so that you understood what he was waiting for, and everyone else was sort of innocently existing.

3 Body Problem. Jonathan Pryce as Mike Evans in episode 105 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

AF: And then we come to the boat slicing, which is a harrowing scene. I was so caught off guard by the escalation of the destruction. What went into the preparation for piecing this sequence together?

Ruscio: I was working remotely, so I was in this beautiful garage-converted office, working that boat scene, having texts and notes from the UK, and going through each cut for the editor, the director, and the producer’s cut.  Essentially, I’m on my own for that editor’s portion with my assistant. We worked with some of the previs, and we had the practical shots where a light would hit somebody’s head, and you understood that meant it was where they were going to slice.

I had to decide about how many frames the scene would be, and Josh would put in the sound effects, and I’d realize that it’s actually ten frames too long, or I would need to extend it because there’s a sort of a ripple effect.

The paper dolls were one of the most effective shots in that whole sequence. We had that shot behind the teacher and pulled way back, and it’s already happening. Benioff says that’s one of his favorite shots in the whole series. We needed to do justice to that as well. We also gave Jonathan the range to survive the longest. He witnesses the demise of so many people, and we’re putting him far enough into the bowels of the boat so that he is the last one to go.

AF: How long was that process, including the producer’s cut at the end and delivery of the episode?

Ruscio: Many, many months because with the end sequence with Sophon (Sea Shimooka), Wade and Jen were going into the game, so we had additional photography. After everything was done, we shot a new scene for episode one in December of 2023, which I was on set for two days and edited the next morning, and then sent it to the director and producers at the same time.

AF: What was that like for you, being on set and able to meet everyone?

Ruscio: It was a two-day shoot, and I knew the director, Jeremy Podeswa, really well. We’d actually directed True Blood back-to-back together. I’ve edited many of his episodes, so it was more like just being on set and knowing what the producers would want. I’d hear their preferences, and it was pretty crazy because we were trying to lock episode one and were under the gun to get that sequence into the episode.

A strange thing as an editor is that you see intimately into an actor’s process and their ups and downs. There are the good takes, and there are better takes. There are simpler moments and moments that are too big. So, I always feel when I meet actors, I know them, and they understand how well I know them. I share a little bit about myself, so it feels more equal from the start.