I’ve spent over 10 years of my life as a professional editor in addition to my writing. Eight of those years were at ESPN, and the rest was at Fox Sports. It’s not that I’m particularly better at editing sports than anything else, it’s just a matter of familiarity with the equipment and operating systems. I learned how to edit assembly projects on VHS back in high school, before getting in on the first versions of Final Cut in college to get my sea legs on non-linear editing. Over the years, I saw a lot of my colleagues develop specialties within the job that made them absolutely stellar. Some were great at telestrations and graphic effects. Some became experts in sound. Some learned 3D animations. Some became awesome at creating montages and “sizzle” reels.
For what it’s worth, my specialty ended up being quality control. I was obsessive about getting the job done right the first time, because we were on tight deadlines for live TV, and depending on the workload on a given day, there might be 3-5 other people waiting in line to get in my room for their project. So I focused on being as efficient as possible, budgeting my time as best I could for production needs, and being rather spartan about any accoutrements that would be too time consuming without a specific purpose. I would also take an extra 30-60 seconds to make sure every dissolve was clean, the colors were correct, and any graphics didn’t glitch, because frankly, I didn’t want to get the clips sent back to me to do it again because I rushed. I developed a mantra that I called the “Dead Puppy Principle,” which simply stated, “If the number of puppies that will die as a result of me doing things my way instead of the way someone else wants me to for their own ego is zero, then relax and/or fuck off, I’m doing it my way.” Essentially, nothing was worth stressing myself out over if there weren’t real-world consequences. And on the rare occasion when there was something crucial that would go wrong if I didn’t do the job a certain way, I’d bend over backwards to accommodate.
All of this is to say that there’s no true definition of what constitutes great editing when it comes to the Academy. It is very much a personal eye test on the actual mechanics. A few years ago, Bohemian Rhapsody won in this category despite it being mocked for scenes like the one with the band discussing a contract dispute that was just the four sitting around a table chatting, but had something like 80 cuts. This idea of over-cutting comes up a lot in action movies where fight scenes are less choreographed on set than in the edit bay, leading to confusing changes in perspective that can make it difficult to follow what’s going on. At the same time, if multiple cuts serves a narrative purpose, it can be used to great effect.
There’s also minor effects to consider. While many movies and TV shows have a dedicated visual effects team, the less grandiose effects and color changes fall to the editor. For example, my favorite piece of “editing” last year isn’t even nominated in the category. That was in Mank, where every 20 minutes or so, David Fincher had his editor insert a “cigarette burn” into the upper right hand corner of the screen. Back in the days of multi-reel film projectors, those marks were a signal to the person running the projection booth that it was time to change the reels, and that he had a certain amount of time before the current reel ran out. In the digital age, that effect is no longer needed, but Fincher had it inserted to further serve the homage/illusion of the film being from the 1940s. It’s also a bit of fun that this concept was explained in the movie Fight Club 22 years ago, which was directed by David Fincher. It’s such a minor touch that there’s no way anyone other than the editor (or one of their assistants) was responsible for it, but it enhanced the experience that much more. Those little touches are crucial to the art.
Then finally, there’s narrative editing, as in how the overall story is constructed in the post-production process. Does the plot skip back and forth? Are there timestamps to avoid confusion? Does the editor employ “smash” cuts to quickly change from one type of scene to something tonally different? Does one scene create context for something later? Are there callback cuts to illustrate that very point? All of this falls under the editor’s purview as well as the cleanliness of the visual presentation.
So which of our nominees is “best”? Well, like I said, it’s almost completely subjective. My eye is trained better than most because I have professional experience, but even then, a lot of it boils down to what jumps out at me as being something crucial to the film that had to come out of the edit bay. I know that’s not saying much, but hopefully as we break down the individual films, it’ll make a bit more sense.
This year’s nominees for Film Editing are:
The Father – Yorgos Lamprinos
Right off the bat, we’ve got a really strong candidate. As The Father deals with Anthony Hopkins’ dementia, the edit helps illustrate this by incorporating minor changes to the scene as things progress, usually in the form of a set change (Anthony’s and/or Anne’s flat) or the appearance of a new character that he associates with Anne either directly or indirectly. The crispness of the edit is absolutely crucial to pulling off the emotional devastation of these unexplained alterations that would test anyone’s sanity.
Anthony walks from the living room to the kitchen, only to discover it’s a new kitchen. The art on the wall changes from moment to moment. He’s talking to Olivia Colman as Anne, then when he turns back around it’s Olivia Williams. The height of this visual crescendo comes when he argues intensely with Rufus Sewell, has an emotional breakdown, then walks into the dining room and the whole scene starts over.
This is expert visual storytelling through the edit. Some of the changes come from a shift in perspective or a clever wipe in the doorway from one room to the other, but it all feels fluid, leaving the actors’ reactions to translate the more jarring moments. I’d say that the only way to make this better would have been to present the whole thing in one-shot format, but that’s been done quite a few times already in recent years, so if Lamprinos had gone that route, it might have seemed derivative. A clean cut allows the audience to blink and reset their own emotional state before Anthony has a chance to react and attempt to reassess his situation.
Nomadland – Chloé Zhao
As the director and writer, no one knows better than Chloé Zhao exactly how she wants the story to come across, so why not handle the edit as well? As the story in Nomadland is quite linear, following Fern over the course of just over a year, the main task here is to make sure that all the points on Fern’s personal journey make sense, and for the most part it works.
There’s a lot of cutting back and forth between wide shots and close-ups over the course of the film, which serves the thematic purpose by showing just how big the wide world around Fern really is. But it’s never meant to make her feel small. Rather, it’s to let her enjoy herself knowing she has a place in the world, that she’s part of something bigger. As I mentioned when we covered Cinematography, there’s also a tinier world inside the van, but those shots are framed to make it feel as large as possible. That’s camera and edit working in tandem. And of course, just from a technical aspect, when you use a lot of natural lighting, you have to do a lot of color correcting in the bay to make sure the shots have a uniform palette.
There are a couple moments where the edit comes up just a tad short on the narrative logic front. After Dave falls ill, he asks Fern what her next destination will be, and she mentions a sugar beet harvest. Dave tells her that this particular event is still months away, and he offers her a job with him in South Dakota. I recall that in the moment I was wondering what Fern would do in the meantime, but then it just cuts to the next thing, not really making it clear that the progression to Wall Drug was meant to be that very interim. Similarly, when Fern’s van breaks down (I believe in Nebraska), she visits her sister in California to borrow money. Again, this moment is almost instantaneous, even though it’s a major detour from her odyssey. I should say that this doesn’t detract from the overall film in any major way, but it stuck out to me while watching, enough to make me say that this doesn’t quite reach the pinnacle in the specific area of editing. It’s still a great film, though, and if this technique got Zhao’s message across to her own liking, who am I to really argue?
Promising Young Woman – Frédéric Thoraval
This is a film that relies quite heavily on the smash cut as tone shifts throughout the film. It’s also used to set up suspense as the movie hints at a much darker version of itself that sadly never comes out. When Cassie sets her trap by playing fall-down drunk at the bars, the reveal comes via the cut. Sometimes you’ll see her sit up, but she’s still playing the part until she says “HEY!” and this air-sucking sound effect intentionally grinds the moment to a halt. During the film’s opening, another smash cut is added to jump from the first predatory asshole’s house back to her own, where she scratches off another notch in her notebook, leaving us to wonder about the man’s fate. It’s a strong start.
Unfortunately, that momentum isn’t really maintained. In fact, in the film’s best moments, when Cassie pulls her scares on Alison Brie and Connie Britton, the editor is fairly hands off, letting the camera and the actors carry those moments with minimal cutting. Sadly, for the rest of the film, the editing is more used to vacillate between revenge thriller and rom-com and to try to pull off the final game during the movie’s climax, which is little more than a series of gotcha moments that think they’re way more clever than they are. I’m guessing it’s a good read in the script, but visually, it was just sort of convoluted.
Sound of Metal – Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
It’s a little bit hard to parse the film editing style in this film because it relies so heavily on the sound, and those are two separate elements, even though the sound effects have to be edited into the final product. Strictly speaking, the only impact sound can have here is making sure that it’s synced up properly with the visuals and lip movements of the characters.
That said, there are some pretty good methods used here, particularly from a thematic standpoint as the smash cuts are used liberally to help illustrate the chaotic nature of Ruben’s mindset at a given moment. This is a man who can beat the ever-loving shit out of some drums, and then all of a sudden, he can’t hear a damn thing. Everything has been thrown into disarray, and the edit is there to help sell the drama.
Before Ruben goes to the halfway house, he’s paranoid, jittery, and confused, because all around him people are talking and making other noises that he can no longer hear. As such, the scene cuts with him in frenetic ways as he tries to find focus. Contrastingly, when he’s playing music in the beginning before his hearing loss, and when he’s finding serenity with the other residents of Joe’s house, the takes are longer, and the shots are more static. This picks up again after he gets his cochlear implants. He has simulated hearing again, but when he goes to find Lou in Paris, he’s once again thrown into a confusing, triggering environment, and the edit shows a lack of focus until he’s one-on-one with the woman he loves and all becomes normal again.
That’s a difficult pace to keep up, but it’s a brilliantly subtle touch to a film that’s all about being overt about the emotion of the moment. Also, if you pay close enough attention, you’ll see something of a correlation as to where Ruben is framed in a scene. When things are off, he’s often to the sides, which can be done by the camera or in the edit bay by zooming and moving the shot around. When the character is centered emotionally, he’s typically also centered literally in the frame. I can’t quite count this as a point in the editor’s favor, though, as I can’t tell if he did it or if the cinematographer and director intentionally framed the shots that way from the beginning.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Alan Baumgarten
Baumgarten is no stranger to the category, having previously been nominated for his work on American Hustle. He’s also received several ACE Eddie Awards over the years. The man knows his craft to be sure, and there are hints of Hustle in his output here.
In order to keep the courtroom drama compelling, and to comport with Aaron Sorkin’s writing style – particularly when it comes to hindsight justification – Baumgarten on multiple occasions does something that I like to call an “Editing Monologue.” In essence, it’s one story, one extended piece of script text, told by several characters with multiple cuts between speakers, to give off the illusion of one united message. Sometimes it’s a bit more subtle, like when a character narrates what happened during the Chicago riots, or their voices are matched with an audio recording, but it really ramps up when we get the procedural recaps of the day’s events in the trial.
This happens quite a few times. The judge will say something in the courtroom, followed by Sacha Baron Cohen adding the next clause at the comedy club, then Mark Rylance will say a bit to the press, then back to Cohen, then to Eddie Redmayne at headquarters, then back to the judge, then Joseph Gordon-Levitt, then back to Cohen one more time, all set to some jaunty music. It’s one singular piece of narrative information, told by multiple parties, all assembled in the edit.
It’s a very effective device when you want to drive a point home or draw out laughs. Oddly enough I think it was best done in the Austin Powers movies, when an extended dick joke (see what I did there) cuts right at the moment where someone is going to literally describe a penis. Dr. Evil launches his rocket, which a woman sees from the ground and says, “It looks like someone’s…” then the scene smash cuts to a drill sergeant yelling, “PRIVATES! We have an unidentified flying object. It is a long, smooth shaft, complete with…” cut to a baseball umpire, “TWO BALLS!” and so on. That’s basically the same trick that Baumgarten’s pulling here, but with much more relevance to the plot, and because the actors have good comic timing on their own, you still get a couple of decent chuckles during the process.
1) The Father
2) The Trial of the Chicago 7
3) Sound of Metal
5) Promising Young Woman
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Next up, the grandmas duke it out with the ingenues, and Glenn Close looks for revenge on Olivia Colman. It’s Best Supporting Actress!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which bit of editing was your favorite? Did any of my explanations make sense? Have you dabbled in editing yourself? Let me know!