Monday, January 12, 2009

Best Most Editing

When it comes to behind the scenes contributions to movies, I have two regular fascinations: costume design and editing. I love costume design for easy to define reasons: it augments movie stars, it's visually interesting, it can define characters. Editing is fascinating for far more mysterious reasons. For one thing, we can't really see the results. It's like a phantom craft. I mean we see the cuts in a movie but we don't know what was cut, when or how the rhythm and emotion of the scene shifted based on the decisions made. We only see the end result. For all we know a movie that seems merely OK to us may have the best editing of the year. They say movies are often made in the editing room, so if an editor takes terrible raw materials and pulls an OK movie from it we will only recognize the OK movie, not the worth of the rescue job. By contrast, an editor could theoretically have astonishing raw materials and deflate a performance or botch a key sequence and we could still end up with a very good movie and we'd think: that movie has good editing! It's a mysterious craft. I'm sure even the editors on film B don't really know what the editors on film A accomplished.

You know what else is mysterious? The nominations from the Editor's Guild

Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Angus Wall & Kirk Baxter
The Dark Knight Lee Smith
Frost/Nixon Mike Hill & Dan Hanley
Milk Elliot Graham
Slumdog Millionaire Chris Dickens

I'm so confused right now. I swear that I saw 113 movies in 2008 and I'm beginning to think that I imagined 108 of them. Did I? Are these the only 5 movies that came out in 2008? It sure seems like it. Who knew that movie theaters were so empty all year? I specifically remember being in movie theaters and in all kinds of places and weather, too. Am I losing my mind?

Question for discussion: Iron Man vs. Batman. The Dark Knight definitely has more kick overall but weren't Iron Man's action sequences more coherent... and isn't that a function of editing? Editing outside of Bourne films, I mean. I'm curious to hear thoughts in this regard as I draft up some awards pages.

Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy or Musical)
In Bruges Jon Gregory
Mamma Mia! Lesley Walker
Tropic Thunder Greg Hayden
Vicky Cristina Barcelona Alisa Lepselter
WALL-E Stephen Schaffer

Here's where the real mysteries kick in. How does Mamma Mia! get a "best editing" citation. Maybe Leslie was working with footage even worse than what we saw onscreen and if so, I'm tempted to send flowers. Or maybe a case of Ibuprofen. From where I sat Mamma Mia!'s nonsensical image pileups which I can only assume were tributes to music video storytelling styles of the 80s didn't scream "award worthy!" It's the easiest target and I don't mean to single Walker out. I'm sure she's (he's?) lovely. In fact, Walker has worked on some great movies in the past and even survived multiple outings with troubled production prone Terry Gilliam. So maybe Walker doesn't need flowers or medicine. Maybe Lesley Walker is as tough as Sigourney Weaver in "Ripley" mode. So Walker probably won't mind me saying how I think it's batshit crazy to leave out Burn After Reading if you have a whole best editing in a comedy category, you know?


Anonymous said...

I'm also curious about why they need to have separate categories for drama and comedy/musical. It makes sense for Art Direction and Costume Design, but Editing? I'd be particularly interested in an explanation why the editing for comedies and musicals are similar, but both are different from dramas.

Anonymous said...

very happy for in bruges. hopefully it builds some momentum going into the oscars to grab the screenplay nod

Glenn said...

Well, in their defence, comedy has a completely different rhythm to drama.

Having said that, the drama nominations are terrible. Well, not so much terrible as just boring.

Anonymous said...

I can see where you're coming from Nathaniel, but I thought the Iron Man action sequences were staggeringly dull, whereas The Dark Knight had a real thrill to them (I'm thinking particularly of the Batmobile vs the semi truck scene during the Harvey Dent save).

James Colon said...

If anything, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON could have used quite a bit more cutting with its laborious 167-minute running time.

Anonymous said...

The drama category looks like a cut-and-paste job from other awards rather than the result from an actual voting. Ugh.

That said, I'm just glad In Bruges is nominated. Maybe it'll surprise at the Oscars?

Anonymous said...

I loved The Dark Knight, and considering the otherwise incredible production standards, I thought the editing was quite choppy. Anyone else?

Tim said...

As an "editor" (read: that's what I enjoyed the most in film school, and God willing it's what I'd like to do one day in the future), this is one of the most satisfying commentaries I've ever seen on the esoteric mystery of the art. And I'll throw out another question: what about improv-heavy films like Happy-Go-Lucky? If my understanding of Mike Leigh's production process is correct, there's a great huge amount of essentially directionless raw material that has to be streamlined into a plot full of coherent conversations. And yet, save for a BAFTA nom for Vera Drake, not one of his films has been recognised in that way.

About those nominations: I agree that Burn After Reading dearly deserves a nod - having no idea what the Coens gave themselves to work with, there's barely a single cut in that film that doesn't feel "right". And despite my rampant love for WALL-E, I don't see where the great skill lies in editing storyboards. Yes, the choice of where to put each "cut" requires talent (and it was done real damn well), but it's not like the animators gave him three hours of footage to refine into a 98-minute film. What we see onscreen is what was rendered.

Mamma Mia! is inchoate trash, but you're right: maybe that was the absolute best compromise that could be made.

(Having cut all three - comedy least successfully - my feeling is that comedy and drama have much more in common with each other than comedy and musical numbers).

Kelsy said...

Good point. I can see enjoying a style of editing, but it seems so esoteric, how do you judge it?

NicksFlickPicks said...

Totally. About all of it.

As for judging it: it's true that we cannot assess the raw materials the editor had to cut from, just like we don't know what light the cinematographer had to work with or how much money the production designers had at their disposal, etc. But I think the best things you can do are a) compare the sequences as you watch them to the different choices the editors might have made with the material you are seeing, and b) gauging how the general rhythms and concisions of the individual edits work or don't work for the scenes of a given film, and for the film as a whole.

Anonymous said...

Where to begin?
Absolutely one of the most interesting/informed threads about film editing yet. Keep em coming.
As to the bifurcation of the's simply commerce. The same reason the noms were expanded from 3 to 5 about ten years ago. Studios are compelled to buy entire tables of 10 for each of their nommed films (Eddie only grants a free pair for each nom). Here's the math...15 years ago, 3 noms (features), 24 tickets @ $150= $3600. Today, 10 noms, 80 tickets @$150 = $12000. The only explanation for Mama Mia.

As to judging editing fairly, usually it's impossible, for all the reasons cited in above comments. As with almost every category it begins with the success of the film. Did it work? Was it emotionally satisfying? Were the performances coherent/consistent? We can never know the difficulty the editor faced with the raw dailies, yet it's the only way to an informed assessment of the work. As an editor, most of the movies I've cut, I've done alone. I have done a few as part of a two or three person team and I can tell you I've been astonished at the talent or lack thereof. I would never have guessed previous Award winning editors could be so clueless, and be so impressed with the craft of unknowns. Not the rule, mind you, but more common than you'd expect.
Let's also consider the collab with the director. Some are content to stay away from the editing room and let the editor have a huge say while others reduce the craft to button pushing, never allowing the editor a voice. I've known both, and while it can be rewarding to be granted the autonomy of the former, and aggravating to be relegated to the position of the latter, the truly gifted editor is somewhere in the middle. He and the director should come up with a film whose sum is greater than its parts, the true result of collaboration. Directionless anything is a wayward ship and oppressive direction results in cold film. This is true with acting, cinematography, stunt name it. And yes, editing.
So good luck in the office pool. My advice? Go with the most successful (filmmaking-wise) movie that has a challenging narrative and at least a bit of flash. This year's pick? Easy...Slumdog.

Anonymous said...

I think The Dark Knight has excellent editing - it gives the movie its memorable Michael-Mann-meets-Jason-Bourne rhythm and flow. How can you not be impressed, on the analytical level if not emotional one, by the road battles, the simultaneous bomb assassinations, and -- above all -- tense, mind-screwing and then delightfully over-the-top opening heist, is beyond my (admittedly fanboyish) comprehension. Iron Man's by-the-numbers action sequences have nothing on those. (Frankly, I've just realized the pure action parts were the most boring part of IM for me. How weird is that? Any chance the sequel will be two hours of RDJ and Gwyneth bickering?)

So yeah, it's pretty sad how incredibly lazy these nominations are, but the TDK one at least isn't undeserved. I am hoping it will pull a Bourne at the Oscars and get at least a nomination in this category even if it misses the Best Picture lineup (which I find more and more probable with each passing day).

Anonymous said...

Also, while Mamma Mia mention is at least excusable by the film being a musical (So the voters might have been blinded by all the music and the dancing... I know, I am reaching.), I gotta ask: Vicky Cristina Barcelona? How did that happen?

Even if you like the film (I don't), surely it's not for the visual style? There seems to be no concept behind it, the overlong reaction shots kill good part of the jokes, and a couple of camera's rides are practically amateurish in execution (specifically, the part where it follows Cristina to the bike and back, and then turns around to reveal Penelope massaging Javier. Was I the only one for whom it felt so intrusive that I practically saw the cameraman sitting there, picnicking with the cast?). This over impeccable work in Burn After Reading and Happy-Go-Lucky? WTF?


mililjo... thanks for those insights. I am hoping to interview more editors next year right here. One of my all time favorite film books is on editing (and sound) The Conversations and I enjoyed the interview I did with the Crash editor. Talking to filmmakers who aren't directors or actors can be enlightening.

it's a huge piece of the puzzle.

notluke and arkaan -- i'm not saying i think Iron Man's editing is better. I'm just asking what people think. I agree that The Dark Knight has real kick but I can't be the only one who, while excited by the action sequences, also wish they made more sense.

for instance the much lauded underbridge car chase with all the explosions and gunfire and eventual spectacular semi-flipping. There were a lot of moments in that scene where I was like "where the hell is this car in relation to this other car and how is this car suddenly still in the fight and blah blah blah.

incoherent I thought... even if it was exciting.

I hate to be a grumpy old man but I swear to god that at least 3 or 4 times a year in a movie theater I find myself desperately missing James Cameron and wishing he were at least active enough to mentor this new generation of action filmmakers. They're not slouches but I don't think they really care about coherency and that sorta makes me sad.

I'm way more invested in an action sequences when it's not abstracted.

John T said...

Mamma Mia should have a Raspberry Award for Editing, if only for cutting that certain scene featuring Dominic Cooper...

PIPER said...

Everybody's frickin Slumdog crazy.

I'm hoping I imagined most of 2008, because it was a lousy year.

I'm with you on editing. I like the phantom craft analogy. In film class, editing was my favorite part of assembling a film. Otherwise you're just looking at a bunch of nonsensical dailies. Editing makes a rambling director brilliant.

RahulB said...

I've always assumed it's easier to choreograph an action scene the "Bourne" way than it is to actually have establishing shots and to follow a car around as some of the more high-wired things happen.

Am I making sense? I'm just assuming that it's easier to show close-ups of elbows and bloody noses than to actually show a fight scene from a respectable distance.


notluke -excellent point about vicky cristina barcelona. I love the movie but there were moments where i thought... "oh!" for missed opportunity with the timing. i.e. editing/performance.

but complaining about Vicky lacking more quickfire timed cuts is tricky because part of the film's appeal is how leisurely it all feels -- a tough act to balance.

Nick M. said...

"If cinema is a language, editing is its grammar."

I don't recall who said that, but I've always liked that quote.

rosengje said...

I find editing endlessly interesting. I have absolutely no idea how it works, but the idea that a performance can be crafted out of editing different takes together is fascinating to me. I wish we knew which performers suffer/benefit most from this ability.


rosengje... i assume the stage trained actors would look rosey if you just saw all the seeems strung together withou the movie around it (since they know how to modulate an arc that you can watch develop all evening) and the film actors would require more shaping. But that's just a wild guess.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

One of my problems with the best editing category is the way it has morphed. Look at a movie like "Kramer vs. Kramer." Not the best film, but very well edited, I must say. Nominated for best editing the year it was released. A film like that would NEVER get an editing nom today. Because it's considered a tech category, I think the editing branch almost feels obligated of late to nominate action/thrillers/epics etc. Genres that you think of when you think of the "Tech" categories, even if they're not the best edited films.

Anonymous said...

Great editing not in TDK or Slumdog

I'll defintely echo Happy-Go-Lucky. Though it must be said that Leigh's process is not quite as described. His films aren't improvised. Months of discussion, improvisation etc go into the crafting of the film, but then a fully formed script is written (by Leigh himself).

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist was beautifully edited as well.

Glenn said...

I think the improvisation thing comes from stories about how the women of Secrets & Lies didn't know there was going to be a race twist before filming the scene, as well as the revelation sequence of Vera Drake.

Know Nothing, I'd argue that Kramer vs Kramer WOULD get an editing nomination if it were a best picture contender.

My best editing picks so far this year have quite quirky. Black Water (horror flick), The Dark Knight, Not Quite Hollywood (documentary), Reprise (foreign arty film) and Smiley Face (stoner comedy) with movies like [rec], Three Blind Mice, The Strangers and Slumdog in the finalists positions.

I generally find horror a genre that is incredibly under-rewarded in this category. I tend to find that if a horror movie scares me then "the editing must be good" because it's hard to be scary and have no made tension at all. If you follow my drift...