Compared to many of the other Oscar categories, “Best Film Editing” is often a tough one to predict. With “Best Cinematography,” “Best Art Direction,” and “Best Costume Design,” for instance, you can clearly see how each nominee demonstrated a mastery of their craft and set themselves apart from their peers. With editing, however, aptly called “The Invisible Art” of cinema, what’s been left out is just as important as what ends up in the final cut. The audience has no realistic way of knowing what compromises in performance the editor had to make in order to elucidate a specific plot point or which amazing shots couldn’t be used simply because they presented an inconsistency in story or character. Even a seasoned editor, who knows better than anyone else what the editorial process involves, may not be able to recognize a brilliant feat of editing without a glimpse of what was left on the cutting room floor. Sometimes a poorly written, haphazardly-shot mess of a story can be turned into something meaningful in the skillful hands of a top-notch editor, and similarly, a beautiful story can be butchered by an editor who doesn’t let the material find its own voice and tries to impose a style that doesn’t fit the material.
I like to break down the craft of editing into two parts, which I call the “micro” level and the “macro” level, for lack of better terms. The micro level is how each individual shot relates to the ones around it. Does each combination of shots disclose information in the best way possible? Do the shots fit together well and flow smoothly without being jarring, awkward, or confusing? Is there a minimum of discontinuity between shots, which tends to take the audience out of the story? Is there an inherent rhythm to the cutting that breathes life into each scene?
The macro level of editing is “the big picture” – how each scene relates to the scenes that come before and after it and helps set the tone of the entire film. Is the story told in the most effective manner possible? Are the characters fully developed and realistic? Does each scene begin and end at the most opportune time? Is the film as a whole concise enough to avoid rambling, but fleshed out enough to avoid plot holes and inconsistencies? Is the audience absorbed by the story?
The delicate job of the editor is to pay just the right amount of attention to each level of editing. Get too lost in the “micro” edits, and you’ll end up with a weak film. Even though each individual edit may be brilliantly executed, if you can’t tell a story well, you haven’t done your job. Similarly, if you only focus on structure and cannot put two shots together cleanly, the audience will be taken out of the story. For example, I knew “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” would not win last year because of how long and rambling the film was on a macro level, even though Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall did a fine job on each individual scene. And while I thought “Milk” was a beautiful film that was well-told, I couldn’t help but feel that “Slumdog Millionaire” was just as good a story, but with better micro-editing.
The best editors understand and exploit the natural give-and-take between micro-editing and macro-editing. Sometimes you can get away with a jarring discontinuity if the audience is fully absorbed in the emotional arc of a scene. And sometimes you can rescue a scene or instill a certain feeling in your audience simply by changing the placement of just one shot, or swapping out one line reading for a slightly different one. Having the experience and judgment to make tiny decisions with enormous consequences is what sets Oscar-nominated editors apart from everyday schlubs like you and me (if you happen to be an Oscar-nominated editor and you’re reading my blog, check out the “About Me” page for my credits and contact info!). Granted, on any project there will be many “cooks in the kitchen” when it comes to the macro-editing (the director, producers, and studio all trump the editor when it comes to storytelling decisions), but as the person most intimately familiar with all of the footage, the editor shouldn’t be afraid to let his or her opinion be heard.
This year’s crop of Oscar-nominated editors will be presenting noteworthy scenes and talking about their films and careers at A.C.E.’s annual “Invisible Art, Visible Artists” event at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood the day before the Oscars. I make it a point to go every year to glean whatever insight I can from the masters of our craft. It’s always fun to watch scenes from the films I haven’t had a chance to see yet, and it’s equally enjoyable to re-watch scenes from the films I’ve already seen and analyze the work that went into them from an editor’s perspective. If you attend the event, keep in mind how each editor approached both the micro and macro aspects of editing their respective films when predicting a winner. And for your information, I’m 4 for 4 on the “Best Film Editing” Oscar after attending “Invisible Art, Visible Artists!”