The Academy Award for Best Film Editing is very closely correlated to Best Picture. For 33 years, 1981-2013, every Best Picture Winner was nominated for Film Editing. Two thirds of Best Picture winners also win for Editing.
[What broke the mould? In 2014, Birdman won Best Picture but was shut out of the Best Editing nominations. Those went to American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash; Whiplash won.]
Editing is the invisible art that even editors struggle to describe.
Nebraska editor Kevin Tent: It’s hard to articulate what editors do, but when it’s bad, you’ll know it. When it’s good, you’ll never know.
Gravity co-editor Mark Sanger: The editor needs to provide a canvas that complements all of the other aspects to tie them together. If an audience has engaged deeply enough with a story to nominate it for best picture, then they understand the pages were bound together in the editing.
Any clearer? Basically, what Oscar voters are thinking is: Are there special challenges that go into it? Multiple story lines? Non-linear? Does it flow well, is the story clear? Is the film visually exceptional? Is the movie long but doesn’t feel it? Directing a movie is telling (showing) a story; editing a movie is how well you can tell it. Sometimes good editing means you don’t notice it at all, it seamless pulls together all the elements of the movie. Other times, it might purposely draw attention to itself: Wolf of Wall Street’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker says “In ‘Wolf,’ we’re doing shocking cutting deliberately, because their world is out of control, and wild.”
Only the principal editor is named on the award. He or she may sit down and do the first edit of a movie by themselves, but the director is almost always sitting beside them for the polish of the film, and their work becomes blurred with judgments about pacing, film language, and more. Lots of directors have a go-to editor as this person will be their right-hand in making the film complete. They get to know each other very well, and must share a vision for the film, while pushing each other to make the best film possible. Michael Kahn, the most nominated editor is Oscars history, and tied for most wins (3), is a frequent collaborator of Steven Spielberg – they’ve worked together for nearly 40 years. Schoonmaker and Scorsese are also collaborators over several decades. Some of these editor-director ‘marriages’ last longer than the real ones do in Hollywood.
You probably can’t truly judge an editor unless you’ve seen the raw material they had to work with, but there are some things to look out for: is it focused? graceful? do they keep you on the edge of your seat when there’s action? are you riveted during a great performance? does it keep your interest throughout? are you ever confused, or left wondering what’s happening in a scene? do they stay on a particularly good moment for as long as it holds emotionally, or cut away too soon? What’s left out is just as important as what’s kept. And sometimes staying, rather than cutting, is even more powerful. Yup, it’s a lot to think about and certainly would require more than one viewing to really judge. There are only about 220 members of the Editing branch of the Academy, and they’re the ones who pick the nominees. Then everyone gets to vote for who wins.
This year’s nominees:
John Gilbert, for Hacksaw Ridge: Gilbert was previously nominated for his work on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but the Academy likes war movies in terms of editing. The battle scenes have lots of intense editing, and Gilbert agrees that these are what the Academy is responding to: “They’re made up of fragments of images, a lot of it is very short shots and high intensity. The idea was to put the audience in amongst it and people really feel it in the battle scenes, a lot of people sort of cover their eyes, there’s a lot of bloodshed and mayhem, and it’s quite sustained.” While the initial work of stringing the film together can be done quickly, perhaps in a week, the real meat comes afterword, when director and editor sit down together to make all the difficult choices. “I worked with Mel Gibson for about 10 weeks on it. I originally thought that 10 weeks was not going to be enough. About half the movie is battle scenes, with a lot of quick-cut action, and a lot of choices due to the amount of footage I had. Mel had been in during the shoot and we went over some sequences in great detail, looking at re-speeding shots, and trimming frames, taking quite a bit of time. There are always key scenes where small changes in performance and timing can be critical and we worked hard on them.” Gilbert is quick to point out that editing is a collaborative process: “The assistants break it down into scenes for me, and I skip through the circled takes to start with, just to have a look at what sort of coverage I’ve got. I like to get an idea in my mind about the shape of the scene, where I’m going to use the wide shots, where I’m going to use the close-ups, and how to best use the coverage I have. I like to find what I think are they key moments in the scene and make a note of any magic I find in the performances. I make a ‘selects’ sequence as I go, which I make in story order, and that becomes the basis for my first edit. It is also useful if the script supervisor has a good relationship with the director and is able to give me insight into what they were thinking, and any moments they loved when shooting.”
Joe Walker, for Arrival: Walker worked with Denis Villeneuve last year on Sicario and again this year on Blade Runner 2049, so they’re forming quite a successful partnership. He was previously nominated for his work on 12 Years A Slave. As Villeneuve and Walker wrapped up Sicario, Villeneuve passed him the script for Arrival, and he was immediately drawn to it for its “strong female lead. It was educated and it was grown-up, and I was fascinated by the application of my craft to it, in so far as it’s right in the middle of what I think is our super power as editors, which is the manipulation of time.” Arrival is told with little glimpses of memory, other times, other places. How do you sew that all together? “Many things were just grabbed moments that were sort of very emotive and beautiful, a hand touching a baby’s hand in a cart, or an out-of-focus shot of a horse in a stable. They could have gone anywhere. Trying to build that into the narrative and marble this narrative through with these little glimpses of a memory, if you like.” Arrival doesn’t have a strictly linear approach, nor is it classically circular or backward or necessarily out of chronological order. It simply does not exist within our perception of time and order. It’s interwoven, with all moments touching each other, if you can think of time reaching around on itself. “To really be moved by the ending, we felt we had to adjust that. We had to make sure that the wall that we built at the beginning wasn’t so solid that we couldn’t kick it down, but also we had to choose a real moment where people will definitely get it. That’s right at the heart of editing and narrative storytelling, working out when you’re just ahead of the audience, or in parallel with the audience, and never behind. We always wanted to compliment the audience’s intelligence so that they could figure it out themselves.”
Jake Roberts, for Hell or High Water: Jake “NOT the Snake” Roberts has worked on some pretty great films, including Starred Up, Brooklyn, and Trespass Against Us, but this is his first Academy Award nomination. He was a film buff grown up and expected to be a “film maker” but fell into editing rather accidentally, and fell in love with it quite whole heartedly. “The alchemy that occurred when you juxtaposed certain images or performances and added music or sound effects was ‘filmmaking’ to me in the most literal sense. I’ve been editing ever since.” On the particular challenges of making a neo-Western like Hell or High Water: “The challenges were mostly about tone and pace. It’s a serious film but has plenty of laughs in it so we had to be careful not to let it get too heavy or too silly and walk a line between it’s extremes. Likewise we wanted the film to be languid in places and for the audience to be able to hear the space and the silences but equally for it to play plausibly as a mainstream thriller.” How does he evaluate editing? “Never stop asking questions of the material. What do I (as the audience) want to see next? What information, be it visual or expositional, do I need to follow the story? What don’t I need? What is repetitive? Why don’t I like that character as much as I should? Why does it feel slow here?”
Tom Cross, for La La Land: He’s only been the lead editor on films since 2010 but he’s already got one Academy Award under his belt, for – you guessed it – Whiplash. How does Cross describe his collaborator, director Damien Chazelle? “Very, very prepared. In that way, it really helps me as an editor to put the movie into the first cut. The other thing that is so great about Damien, as a director, is that he is a true believer in what film editing can do. He gets very excited about solving problems, whether they be story problems or a character problems. I shouldn’t really say “problems,” but issues. He gets very excited about solving certain issues through editing. To his credit, he’s a brilliant writer and a visionary director, but he also is not afraid to change something in his script, whether it be dialogue or action, in order to fit what the film has to be.” How does Whiplash compare to La La Land? “In the case of Whiplash, the directive was to tell a story at a break neck pace, and with a certain amount of precision. As if the character of Fletcher was editing the movie itself. In the case of La La Land, Damien had similar directives for the editing. He had different styles that he wanted to do scenes. He used certain romantic scenes that would play out at a slower pace, and maybe less cuts. He knew that in order for that to really work and have the right emotional impact, he would have to offset that in other scenes. Other scenes have quick cutting, or fast cutting, or are told with dissolve, or other optical techniques. I think that something that excites me about Damien’s work is that he really looks at how editing can help tell the story. He’s a real believer in varying the pace and varying the speed of the cuts in order to accentuate moments when he wants to have something play slower and more romantically.” Lots of the movie relies on old Hollywood techniques to help make the film feel more dream-like, sweeping camera movements and dissolving scenes. In that way, the editing too is a throw-back. Some scenes that are meant to be more ‘modern’ (like the concert footage with John Legend) feature a lot of cutting, but others, such as when Mia and Seb dance in the observatory, are a single, brave take. And for all La La Land’s big, showy, numbers, there are also quiet scenes that convey a lot of emotion. “There were items where the editing would have to take a back seat and be very invisible. That could be seen in the dinner scene where they break up. It was directed to me as an editor to use these four shot units—we had a medium shot of Sebastian, a medium of Mia, a close of Mia, and a close of Sebastian. That’s all you have.”
Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon for Moonlight: If Sanders and McMillon win, they’ll make history. Actually, they already have; McMillon is the first African American woman to be nominated as an editor. She’d obviously also be the first to win! Sanders and McMillon divided the job between the two of them, with Sanders primarily focused on the first two segments and McMillon working on the third. The third, of course, was the toughie, and McMillon had to convince writer-director Barry Jenkins to move substantial pieces around in order to maximize and earn emotional involvement. Once he was on board “we found a place for everything, it became organic.” “Barry’s really focused on what life feels like,” Sanders said, specifying cutaways of a hand sifting through sand, or Naomie Harris moving in slow motion through the yard. Sanders and McMillon tinkered with sound design, and chose abrupt cuts to black, but kept a respect for the elegant camera work. “When you get such beautiful footage, you have to treat it like another performance,” Sanders said. He also explains the particular challenge of working for college pal Jenkins: “maintaining Barry’s filmmaking voice, which was observational and ponderous, and always wanting to preserve that, but still needing to keep things moving.”
So does that make things clearer, or muddy the waters? And who’s your pick for Oscar?
I think it would be cool if Arrival got it, I think some moments dragged in Moonlight but they’re all deserving winners aren’t they?
There used to be a show on Nickelodeon called Lights! Camera! Action, hosted by Leonard Nimoy. In one episode he compared two or three minutes of the raw footage an editor would get to the final product. It was a very interesting look into the editor’s work.
In a film class I took an editor also told us that approximately every minute on screen represents about an hour of film. That’s how much gets cut.
So it’s a little annoying to hear the theory that the reason Best Editing so often wins Best Picture is that no one understands editing well enough to judge it so they just give it to whatever they think is the best film overall. But I can also understand why that might be the case. Editing is the invisible art.
Anyway of the films nominated I’ve only seen Arrival so far and even there editing is so invisible it’s hard to judge.
hard choices for them to make.
I never really gave much thought to editing, but your write-up really gave an inside look from the editors themselves and the under-appreciated art of editing. I always go with what’s the most seamless, the editing that makes the movie’s scenes flow well…sometimes it’s also the one I don’t immediately notice because then it’ll be some flaw that would be obvious. I’d pick Arrival, everything seemed well placed and timed 🙂 I LOVE moonlight though (my favourite film of 2016 probably), but some parts were just immediately cut to the next with no gradual change, the transitions seemed kinda jarring.
Team Sanders and McMillon for Moonlight. I would just love to hear Sanders accept the award and give such a historic speech. It’d be a brilliant thing to watch 🙂
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I think Moonlight should win everything it is nominated for, including this one. Editing is a huge part of what makes it so great. But so is casting, and acting, and scoring, and writing. Moonlight is as close to a perfect film as I have seen.
I really enjoyed reading this article I am a screenwriting student at the moment in london and I am being taught by a guy from the BBC and in class today a guy was like film is about images so I think editing and screenwriting go close in hand because both of them are still trying to make the story flow 🙂
this article inspired me X
Wow… What an interesting and educational post. Kind of gives one a new appreciate for that category. Thanks, Jay!
I think you can’t truly evaluate for editorial talent without seeing all the material the editor (s) had at their disposal to work with…but poor editing often presents itself regardless doesn’t it? I only saw Arrival and La La Land from this group and neither really made much of an editing impression on me.
Ah man! You have no idea how disappointed I was that Jake was not that Jake. What a career change that would have been!
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