For Your Consideration – Judging the Invisible Art of Editing
Of all the collaborative filmmaking crafts, editing is perhaps the hardest creative art to judge, yet among the most critical in terms of shaping the story. Although during the course of the production the editor usually puts the initial edit together, sometimes with little input from the director, once production is complete the polishing of the film is normally done in close partnership with the director, blurring the line between the editor’s contribution and the director’s vision.
So how should the craft of editing be judged? What criteria would an Oscar-winning editor, such as Michael Kahn – who has worked with director Steven Spielberg for over 37 years and most recently edited the Oscar-nominated Lincoln– use to judge whether an edit is award-worthy? “When you see something that is well edited, you don’t know if the editor did it from his own devices or if he sat with the director who told him exactly what to do,” Kahn said. “That is something we will never know. What you can judge by is if it’s a great film. If it is a good film and it works well, you know the editor had a lot to do with making it happen. The films that are nominated, you look at them and make assumptions as to how much a director did. How much the editor contributed. It’s the editor and the director together. It’s a team. It’s a collaboration.”
Which brings us to the trend of many iconic and award-winning filmmaking teams having collaborated for most of their creative lifetimes. Much like Kahn and Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and Joel Cox, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Ang Lee and Tim Squyres are all filmmaking teams that have worked over 20 years together, on most of their films. Even a newer director, such as Ben Affleck, seems to have found a cinematic soul mate in editor William Goldenberg, who edited Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, and recently cut the Oscar-nominated, Argo. “The editing of a movie is a communal thing,” said Goldenberg. “There are a lot of people involved. You hope as the editor that you’re in charge of that, but it’s a collaborative process.”
In fact, in the filmmaking world, the relationship between editor and director is frequently compared to a marriage; a marriage that often lasts longer than traditional marriages in the industry. Like many long-term relationships, these collaborators have common sensibilities, including likes and dislikes. The editor almost becomes an extension of the director. “As much as you can contribute to the director, as much as you can be the right arm, that’s what counts,” said Kahn. This symbiotic relationship could account for the tendency of films that win the best picture Oscar to also take home Academy awards for editing and directing.
In addition to the difficulty of separating the work of the editor and director, another difficulty in judging editing is in comparing the disparate styles for editing different filmic stories. The Oscar-winning editing of The Bourne Ultimatum or Crash are suited to the storytelling of those particular films, just as the editing of Lincoln or Silver Linings Playbook or Zero Dark Thirty is predicated on the best way to tell those film stories. Each particular film has its own internal pacing, as well as performances that ideally dictate the editing choices, but the editing is also a matter of what material the editor is given to work with. Django editor Fred Raskin noted, “I was talking to a couple of editor friends of mine about this, and the truth of the matter is, unless you’ve seen the dailies on the movie, you kind of can’t judge quality of the editing, until you know what the editor has to work with.”
Nevertheless, there still are talents that good editors innately possess that factor into quality editing. “The nature of editing is that you are working with existing material to build something,” explained Zero Dark Thirty co-editor, Dylan Tichenor. “But there are fundamental properties in editing – grace and rhythm, focus of storytelling, depth and interest of performance, things like that. I’m not looking to be wowed necessarily. I don’t need bravura sequences where I go, ‘Oh, look at the editing in that!’ Billy’s work on Argois so fabulous, but there’s nothing saying, ‘Look how well edited this is.’ As a whole it is just done with such sensitivity and rhythm. I’m being told a story in a super proficient way by someone who knows what they’re doing. They’re showing what I need to see, when I need to see it. I’m getting glimpses of such a depth of ideas. It’s exciting when it should be exciting and riveting. It’s hard to say anything specific because filmmaking is such a complex art form.”
Editing decisions can also mean choosing not to cut. “In a drama, like Lincoln, the editing was smooth,” explained Kahn. “We didn’t cut away with the action. We stayed with the good performance. We didn’t abort the moments, like some have done. We were very careful about that. The decision not to cut in this case, in many cases, is better than the decision to cut. Stay with the performance if the performance is good.” Raskin agreeed, “I would say I have greater respect for something that’s not particularly cutty. In dialog, when you’re able to hold on a performance and not cut away, I think that’s more impressive. When you get into action sequences, it’s generally going to be cutty. That’s usually how’s it’s done unless the director has planned out a lot of long tracking shots.”
According to Silver Linings Playbook editor, Jay Cassidy, one other thing factors into the consideration of both good editing and good movies – emotion. So the next time you see a movie ask yourself a few questions. Does it stay with you after you’ve left the theater? Do you want to see it again, and when you do, do you discover new things about the film and enjoy it as much or more than the first time? If you do, then maybe you’ve discovered a well-edited, and maybe even award-worthy gem.
Best Achievement in Film Editing
- Argo, William Goldenberg (24%, 24 Votes)
- Zero Dark Thirty, Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg (23%, 23 Votes)
- Life of Pi, Tim Squyres (22%, 22 Votes)
- Silver Linings Playbook, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers (16%, 16 Votes)
- Lincoln, Michael Kahn (15%, 15 Votes)
Total Voters: 100