The 2015 Oscar nominations for the art and craft of editing spanned a variety of genres, from big action films Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, to performance-driven dramas The Revenant and Spotlight, and the multiple-story line comedy The Big Short. Judging the editing in such a diverse group of nominees is like comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. So what should Academy voters consider when casting ballots for best editing?
The most important thing about any movie is well-performed, relatable characters. According to editor David Rosenbloom (Black Mass), characters are the audience’s “portal into the film.” Different actors work different ways. Some are consistent in all takes while others deliver multiple levels of intensity. The editor’s job is to shape truthful performances and character arcs that progress the story.
According to editor Pietro Scalia (The Martian), editing needs to keep the story progressing and interesting. A film needs a cohesive sense of rhythm. The character needs an emotional trajectory, an emotional arc that the audience can experience with him. “You have to be aware of that. It is always in the service of story and character,” stated Scalia.
Here’s a closer look at the five Oscar nominees for best editing:
The Big Short relates the story of the credit and housing collapse of the mid-2000s, told through the perspectives of four outsiders who predicted the financial turmoil and decided to take on the big banks that precipitated the debacle. Editor Hank Corwin recently garnered the ACE Eddie award for best edited feature film (comedy/musical) for the film, his first collaboration with writer/director Adam McKay. When tapped to edit the film, Corwin, known for cutting serious fare for directors such as Terrence Malick (Tree of Life), confessed to McKay that he had never cut comedy, but shared that he liked to try things. That approach to editing fit into the improvisational way McKay worked.
Corwin’s clear structuring of the multiple storylines, as well as the inclusion of pop culture and news montages that set events into a specific place and time, evolved in editorial from what had been scripted. With the inclusion of the subliminal flashes of pop culture and little chapter headings with quotes on them, suddenly the whole world felt bigger. “The movie began to tell the story of America, ultimately bringing home the tragedy of the crash,” explained McKay.
The Big Short is Corwin’s first Oscar nomination. In 1999 he was nominated for an ACE Eddie for The Horse Whisperer.
Editor Margaret Sixel took home the best edited feature film (dramatic) ACE Eddie for Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic road movie. It is often said that the relationship between an editor and director is like a marriage, so it was apropos that Sixel edit the latest Mad Max installment. She and the director are married with two teenage sons. Still Sixel had doubts, “I wondered if it was a good idea for a husband and wife to work together. George was very insistent and persuasive, so after much internal debate, I decided to jump off the proverbial cliff and see where I landed. The moment the first footage came in – it was the opening scene of Max in the desert eating the lizard and being chased by war boys, I was hooked.”
Balancing the action scenes with quieter moments was the biggest challenge Sixel faced. At test screenings, audience members criticized the film as having “too much action,” so the filmmakers carefully pared back action set-pieces. Not wanting the film to be perceived as one big car chase, they also examined every scene in terms of character so as to maximize the emotional involvement that the audience had with the characters. It was important for the viewer to be invested in who lives or dies.
Mad Max: Fury Road is Sixel’s first Oscar nomination and Eddie win.
The success of The Revenant, the story of a fur trapper, Hugh Glass, on a mission of revenge is largely carried by the singular, and often non-verbal, performance of Leonardo DiCaprio. Editor Stephen Mirrione, tasked with shaping the performance, developed a deep appreciation for what DiCaprio accomplished, “Leo brought this real depth of inner motivation. I was always engaged with what he was thinking and what he was going through.”
Scenes came to life based upon the perspective that the actors brought to the performances, including performances by non-actors. “Alejandro Iñárritu is so brilliant at getting to the core of what makes somebody a really special life force,” commented Mirrione. “A lot of the non-actors in the movie did such remarkable jobs being so expressive and emotional.”
In editorial, the team had to do a lot of restructuring, because according to Mirrione, the script was really more of an outline. The filmmakers realized the importance that the violently realistic bear mauling played in the story. They needed to make sure the attack happened as soon as possible. “That meant figuring out ways to move things around to make sure that was happening at exactly the right moment,” revealed Mirrione.
Mirrione won an Oscar for Traffic (2001) and an ACE Eddie for Babel in 2007, for which he also received an Oscar nomination. He has had multiple ACE Eddie nominations.
Spotlight tells the true story of the high-profile journalistic investigation by the Boston Globe that uncovered the massive child abuse scandal within the local Catholic Archdiocese. Unlike the Station Agent and other past films that dealt with personal or private moments, this fifth collaboration between editor Tom McArdle and writer/director Tom McCarthy, has a large ensemble cast and centers on a big story with national relevance.
In a performance-based film, it is important for an editor to find the right moments. According to the director, McArdle has “a great eye for false moments and weeding out false moments.” It was important to the filmmakers to establish a complete, authentic and genuine world. The edit needed to create tension in order to make the story compelling and hook the viewer.
McArdle liked putting the puzzle together, sharing bits and pieces of information as the investigation progressed. The editor experimented with music and sound to shift how scenes played and because the director was interested in new ideas, he often edited alternative versions. Together they shaped the cut making small changes that made a big difference.
Spotlight is McArdle’s first Oscar nomination. He is also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for editing Spotlight.
The team of Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey have edited all of J.J. Abrams feature films, including the seventh installment of the world-renowned movie franchise, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The editors watch dailies together during production, discussing scenes in-depth “to see if we were interpreting what we were seeing the same way,” Markey said. “It is a great thing to have somebody to bounce the ideas off of. Then we go our own ways and cut the material.”
A challenge in rhythmically pacing a visual effects heavy film is not having final footage to work with until late in the editing process. With their considerable visual effects experience on two massive Star Trek films, Abrams and his editors had a methodology in place for Star Wars. Putting together the cut meant editing with pre-viz and numerous iterations to fine-tune the cut. VFX work continued through mid-fall of 2015 with a December 18 release date.
The ultimate collaborator in the editing room, Abrams will assent to the editors’ choices if they work for the scene. “He may have an idea of how he wants to put a scene together, but he wants to see how we would do it,” Markey stated.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is the first Oscar nomination for Brandon and Markey. They also received ACE Eddie nominations for the film and for Star Trek in 2010.
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