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Editing: The Invisible Hands Behind the Scenes


Films have been edited for over 100 years and the craft has evolved considerably. The best editing is now honored each year by both the American Cinema Editors with their ACE Eddy Awards and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences with the Oscar, but Chris Innis, ACE, Oscar winner for The Hurt Locker, noted that many of the great film editors such as Dede Allen ACE, Alfred Hitchcock’s editor George Tomasini ACE, Robert Wise, ACE, who edited the masterfully constructed Citizen Kane, and more recently, Sally Menke ACE, never won Academy Awards. The question becomes not only what makes for award-winning editing, but also what to look for when judging what has often been referred to as an “invisible art.”

Chris Innis
Chris Innis

“Good editing is a combination of the use of great storytelling, crafting great performances and an overall stylistic approach that is organic with the film and the filmmakers’ vision,” comments Innis. “Good editing neither calls attention to itself, nor does it hide in the shadows – it blends seamlessly into the storytelling so that the audience feels that they are experiencing the film as if it is unfolding in real time.”

The movie as a whole is what makes editing award-worthy according to editor Kirk Baxter, who shared an Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with Angus Wall, ACE Baxter explains, “What gives editing a helping hand comes from within the script. If something is moving along quite rapidly and taking you to different places, then the editing gets pushed to the forefront. Technique tends to stand out, but the task really is to make everything land and deliver a message at full understanding. It’s a much bigger picture – the whole movie is your real job. It just begins with that technique part.”

Kirk Baxter
Kirk Baxter

“When it feels like it’s a new experience, when you’re sucked into the movie and you’re not aware that you’re in a theater,” says Wall “you’re experiencing things like the characters, living vicariously through them. It feels like you’re part of the movie. To me that is a signal that everything is working on 16 cylinders.”

Michael McCusker, ACE, winner of an Eddy for the Oscar-nominated Walk the Line, feels that there is a bit of alchemy in cutting a movie, but agrees, “When I saw Bourne Ultimatum a few years ago, I smiled through the whole thing and said, ‘This guy is going to win.’ For two hours I felt like I was experiencing exactly what the character was experiencing. Even with all the complexities that movie had to offer in terms of action, story and intrigue, you always felt in the center of it, as if you were with Matthew Bourne. For me, that is the key to experiencing great editing.”

Michael McCusker
Michael McCusker

McCusker also felt that Oscar-winner Christopher Rouse, the editor of the film, edited that action flick in a very different way, “It is not just a bunch of cuts. It feels like there is a reason for every cut.”

Performance is perhaps the most important element of filmmaking that not only influences editing, but is influenced by editing. “Performance is everything!” exclaims Wall. “The whole idea is to create a complete movie with no false notes. I think of it like a balloon. If there is a hole in it, it won’t hold air.”

“It’s Hollywood’s little secret that a good editor can be the best friend of an actor. So much of editing is about crafting and shaping performances,” says Innis. “Cutting to and from the actors at any particular moment can be make or break.”

“Soviet filmmaker and film theorist, Lev Kulachov, experimented with this idea when he intercut an actor without an expression with various other shots,” shares Innis. “The difference between the connecting shot – a casket or a bowl of soup for example – led the audience to believe the actor was either sad or hungry. The actor had not been directed to act sad or hungry and had in fact not acted at all, except as perceived by the audience in the juxtaposition of the editing.”

In terms of performance influencing editing, for McCusker it all comes down to “What is truth?” When he looks at a performance, he looks for what “I feel is sincere and real.” This gets complicated since the concept is very subjective. “What is real might not be the same thing for you as it is for somebody else. That is why an editor wants to be aligned with a director that has the same taste because then you are both looking for the same thing.”

Because of this close collaboration between the editor and director, one of the difficulties in judging the editing of a film is actually distinguishing what the editor has done. “Hopefully, it is all a collaboration,” notes Baxter. As for seeing a particular hand in a collaboration he surmises, “You can work out the answers to those things with history, when you see partnerships that work.”

McCusker can’t see any way of differentiating between what the editor and what the director has contributed to the editing, nor does he think he wants to. “The whole point of the job is to be the guy behind the guy,” he said. “It is not to be the guy who stands front and center. It is to be helping that guy. I’ve often said, ‘I don’t make the movie, I just make it better.’ That’s the way I look at my job.”

It is these great partnerships that tend to create award-winning films and editing – think Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, Michael Kahn and Steven Spielberg, Joel Cox and Clint Eastwood, to name a few. McCusker surmises, “Maybe we should change the award to editing partnership.”

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