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Recognizing Exceptional Editing


Just as every summer theaters are filled with super-hero blockbusters and other tent-pole movies, as each year comes to a close, audiences are deluged by the release of motion pictures considered by the various studios to be award-worthy. Although some critically acclaimed works come early in the year, fear of short audience memories means that most highly-anticipated films are released in November and December, shortly before nominations for the various filmmaking awards. In a marathon of sorts, culminating in the Oscars at the end of February, guild and Academy members of all disciplines are asked to view, nominate, and vote upon the best films the industry has to offer.

But what exactly makes a film award-worthy?  On what criteria does a viewer judge films – or the individual crafts used in the collaborative art that is filmmaking­­?  In particular, how does one recognize exceptional editing?

Thelma Schoomaker
Three-time Oscar winner, Thelma Schoonmaker (Hugo, The Departed, The Aviator, Raging Bull) has been credited as an editor since 1966; her filmmaking experience spans over 45 years. Although she has worked with different directors, most of her collaborations have been with Academy Award-winning director, Martin Scorsese. When they are working together in the editing room, Schoonmaker and Scorsese always have AMC playing on a television without sound so that they can catch bits of classic films whenever they want to. “The great films of the past that Marty and I look at stun us by the way they have been edited,” shares Schoonmaker.

Her unique position working with the iconic director, as well as her love of film and the craft of editing, puts her in a distinctive position to not only know outstanding editing, but to understand what editing takes home awards and why. “It is different with every film, of course, but I think the films that usually win have a big splashy editing sequence in them, like for example the fights in Raging Bull, ” comments Schoonmaker. “But a lot of the time editing is not about flashiness. It’s a brilliant ability with pace and rhythm. An ability to make the story work in a very special way.”

Hughes Winborne
Editor Hughes Winborne (The Help, The Pursuit of Happiness, The Great Debaters), who jumped from editing indie films into star-driven studio pictures when he won the Oscar for editing Crash, thinks editing is a very difficult category to judge, even for editors. Because of the nature of the craft, flashy editing is not necessarily the best editing, yet sometimes editing that is understated is passed over because nothing jumped out in the editing. People are also unaware of what an editor has had to work with.

Like Winborne, Schoonmaker believes that there is a wide range of films that really should receive awards for editing, but sometimes they are not considered. In a film based on characters, the editing style is more intricate, but is as valid as a big and flashy edit. “It’s subtle. The audience doesn’t really understand what the editor has done, but that’s okay because that’s our job. We’re not supposed to be seen,” she shares. “Sometimes Marty and I like to slap the audience in the face, but a good deal of the time you are not supposed to be aware of what’s going on.”

One of the common terms used to describe editing is that it is seamless. This editing is not the deluge of fast-cut images typical in showy action sequences. It is editing that invites the viewer into the narrative and strives to make each cut slip by without the slightest “bump” in audience perception, keeping the viewer fully engaged in the story moment. Although editors may notice this kind of editing craft, less astute theatergoers often fail to note these “invisible” edits. In many ways the best editing is the editing that does not overtly call attention to itself, but exists to serve the story and characters.

Kevin Tent
Editing is inextricably tied to successful cinematic storytelling. Kevin Tent regularly edits the films of Academy-award winning, writer-director, Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, Election). He feels that “If the movie works well, moves well, and the performance is good, the editing is good.” This overall success of the storytelling is also an important consideration for Winborne when he is deciding which film to vote on for best editing.  “I have to vote on the whole,” he says. “I look at the films that I like, then I look at the editing.”  Tent also believes that it is important that he, as a viewer, needs to be “emotionally involved and engaged” in the film.

Because the collaborations between editors and directors are often compared to the perfect marriage, it is common for films that receive best picture and best director nominations to also receive a nomination for best editing. “I work with a director who thinks like an editor,” reveals Schoonmaker. “From the moment he conceives of the film he has a conception of the editing. He’s doing half my job because he’s such a good editor himself. He knows what he needs for a scene and that is tremendously helpful. I know there are times when editors are struggling with footage on a film that is not well directed and it’s a nightmare to try and make it work. Fortunately, I’m not in that position. I’m very lucky.”

Unfortunately, there are no absolute rules when it comes to judging editing as a craft. When a film such as Brokeback Mountain is nominated for best picture and best directing, but in an exception to the norm does not receive a nomination for best editing, Winborne admits, “I am really surprised.”

Schoonmaker thinks that people are becoming more aware of the craft of editing. “The estimation of editors has gone up very high in the last 10 years. That’s wonderful to see. It is a mysterious craft. You really have to be around for six months to watch how the decisions get made, and all the accidents that occur that you capitalize on. It’s very difficult to talk about.”

And it’s very difficult to vote on.

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