I’ve been an editor in one form or another since I was 16 years old, literally more than half my life. Whether it was a school project, my nascent YouTube channel, or over 10 years of professional experience in sports and live television, it’s a skill set that has been a part of me ever since I had, well, the ability to have a skill set. It’s even been a part of my writing career, as I used to do weekly columns for reality TV websites where I analyzed the edits for shows like Survivor, The Mole, and The Ultimate Fighter to predict future results.
This is because editing is, at its very core, visual storytelling. It’s the assembly of all the disparate elements into a cohesive whole, one that is hopefully entertaining as well as logical. It’s an art and a science, but it’s far from exact. That’s because there’s a delicate balance that a good editor has to maintain between faithfully executing a director or producer’s creative vision and remaining objective enough to be able to push back and allow their expertise to temper the demand.
I’ll give you an example from my own career. I worked for several years at ESPN, where I would often cut highlights for SportsCenter and other shows. The way it worked was that a Production Assistant or Associate Producer would be assigned a game to follow, log, and choose the plays that would make the highlight reel. Then based on availability, they would be sent to me or another editor when their game was completed, or in progress if there was a time crunch. I’d put together the highlight, make any video corrections, throw in dissolves, and do any other necessary polishing to make the highlight presentable and ready for air, at which point it would be approved by the Producer supervising the PA/AP before I sent it off to the control room for broadcast.
At some point, the PA training shifted to put more emphasis on animated elements like graphics packages and telestrations, to the point where the new recruits were told in no uncertain terms that the highlight would be considered crap if it didn’t have some kind of bell or whistle on it. This led to some stress levels for a lot of the PAs, because after their probationary “Boot Camp” period, if they got a subpar performance review, they were laid off. As such, they felt an extreme amount of pressure to have me gussy up their highlights, even when it wasn’t warranted. It sucked having to occasionally put these fresh faces into an uncomfortable position due to my editorial eye and judgment, but that’s what I was paid to do, and it was also kind of insulting that the other part of that training was the idea ingrained in their heads that we editors were obligated to do whatever they wanted, as they were the de facto producer of the highlight. Entry-level workers (and even interns) were being empowered to boss seasoned professionals around as part of their training even though the edit group existed outside their chain of command and had a different set of procedures.
So there were more than a few moments where I had to snap the young PAs back to reality. I would never refuse a request outright, but I had to make sure they were aware of what my responsibilities were and how well I could accommodate what they wanted. If it was a busy night with multiple games and highlights needing rooms (Saturdays during the spring and autumn would regularly see full slates of NBA, MLB, NHL, and College Sports at once), then any bonus features would have to be simple and quick, something I could do in five minutes or less, unless it was a marquee highlight, in which case I’d be given more time to do more high-end work. Sometimes they would get a great idea in their head, but it would be something beyond the capabilities of the system I was working with. This was usually a case where they needed the graphics and VFX departments to whip something up that I could insert into the highlight rather than me creating it in conflict with my software’s parameters. There were still other times where I had to temper expectations by reminding them that we were working on something like a 30-second highlight for a college basketball game that was airing at the end of the show, when most viewers aren’t paying attention, and nothing in the plays they gave me called for anything extra.
Hell, every once in a while I had to pull them out of their bubble and make them think as a viewer rather than a worker. I remember one night where a kid asked me to do a “spot shadow” (where I freeze the frame and illuminate a certain area or person in the shot) on LeBron James just for the sake of having a telestration. I had to teach him that this was superfluous because a) LeBron is the most recognizable person in the NBA, b) he had the ball in his hands, and c) he was in the very center of the frame. Every eye watching the screen is already focused on him, so a spot shadow would be completely meaningless. I offered to spot shadow a player off to the side that would eventually catch a pass from LeBron to illustrate how the play unfolds, but putting a blinking light on the guy in the center of the screen added nothing. This blunt honesty did not win me many allies. In fact on more than one occasion a PA or AP tried to have me fired for telling them the truth instead of wasting their time and mine.
But on the flip side, when I had time to do something next-level, and a compelling, story-based reason to do so, I dove in head first. The best example of this – something I may have mentioned before – was a highlight for what began as a relatively boring NBA game that was taking place in London, because that was a thing for a while. The game ended up going to triple overtime thanks to last-second buzzer-beater shots in the firs two OT periods. Okay, this nothing game just got super exciting, so let’s expand the highlight. The PA did some research and found that the last time these two teams squared off, it also went to Triple OT. Fascinating, let’s do a Flashback within the highlight to that last time to give the audience context and keep them engaged. Even better, the PA discovered that in both cases, the game-tying three-pointer was executed through a play called a “3-Curl,” where, during an inbounds pass, two decoys run around the perimeter of the three-point arc (the “curl”) so as to draw defenders away, leaving the third to take the pass and immediately tee up the now-uncontested shot. BRILLIANT! Let’s use all the effects in my arsenal (within system limits) to show exactly how this play works, because then not only do we show how a mundane game can become super entertaining, we’re also teaching the audience advanced basketball tactics and strategy. This is new, different, insightful even, and it’s what SportsCenter viewers tune in to see, so of course I give my all to make it look as best as possible, and it turned out great, probably one of the best highlights I ever did.
All this is to say that while the Academy may think the job of an editor is just to put shots together, and is therefore not worthy of inclusion in the Oscars broadcast, I know from my own professional experience that there’s so much more to it. And our five nominees here all illustrate that point to varying degrees. Yes, basic assembly is the primary duty and function, but it’s also about timing, creating a sense of dramatic flow, seamlessly incorporating effects, solidifying the color palette, balancing sound, and creating focus. These are technical wizards and visual artists at the same time, which is not at all easy, and that’s before you remember the necessary ability to check their director’s ego.
So now that I’ve already spent exponentially more time than the Oscars will spend on this discipline, let’s actually get to the breakdown.
This year’s nominees for Film Editing are:
Don’t Look Up – Hank Corwin
This is Corwin’s third nomination, all for films directed by Adam McKay (the other two being The Big Short and Vice, which earned him a BAFTA). As such, he knows how to execute McKay’s vision with little difficulty or resistance. The bulk of that action is seen in fast-paced montages where various characters – all with their own motivations – go about their business in a way that’s thematically related even when their actions seem opposed on a surface level. In Don’t Look Up specifically, this manifests itself in deluges of social media reactions to various moments in the film, like turning Jennifer Lawrence into a meme, calling “fake news” on the scientists, and juxtaposing the coming apocalypse with Meryl Streep and her elite colleagues’ relative comfort. There’s even a direct contrast made late in the film where Ariana Grande singing “Just Look Up” is intercut with Streep holding a rally where she and Jonah Hill get the MAGA stand-ins to chant, “Don’t Look Up.”
The technique is effective, but it’s got two glaring problems. One, we’ve already seen this twice before, so it can feel stale at times. Two, in those previous films, the satire was much more on point – accompanied by winking fourth wall breaks to hammer home the absurdity – so the comedic cross-cutting doesn’t land as well as it did in those earlier works. This isn’t all Corwin’s fault, as he’s hampered by McKay’s story elements to a large degree, including the central conceit being an extreme hypothetical rather than a fractured take on real events. As McKay’s script goes off the rails, there’s only so much the editor can do to save it. Corwin does admirably where he can, especially in the way he tightens up scenes and conversations to give the jokes a better chance of succeeding. But he can’t perform miracles.
Dune – Joe Walker
Like Corwin, Walker is also a three-time nominee, with a good amount of his work being with one visionary director, in this case Denis Villeneuve (his previous nominations were for Arrival (he won the ACE Award for it) and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and he has a BAFTA nod for Blade Runner 2049). Here, just like in Arrival, his job requires two superlative elements. First, he has to visually represent the film’s scale by constantly narrowing and expanding focus as the needs of the scene dictate. Second, he has to juggle multiple locations and settings and make sure they all feel distinctive and recognizable. I feel he does really well on both fronts, as we all feel the size of the world being shown, and we can definitely distinguish in our minds between the various planets, environments, and unique architecture of each faction of the story.
But going further than his last nominated turn, Walker has a third task, and that’s delivering a metric fuck tonne of exposition in a way that gets the point across without feeling too loaded. This is a much more difficult responsibility, as Frank Herbert’s novel is notoriously dense, which is why Villeneuve opted to adapt it into two films rather than one. Walker’s end result is far from perfect here, but again, he’s limited in part due to the direction. He can only request so many ADR re-takes to overcome whispered dialogue, for example. For what it’s worth, I was able to follow the story much better than I watched David Lynch’s version from the 80s, and I’d like to give Walker massive credit for that, but I also have to concede that it just could be because I know the story better now than I did 20 years ago. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
King Richard – Pamela Martin
Martin is on her second Oscar nomination, having previously been recognized for her work on The Fighter. This should tell you right away that she has great ability when it comes to editing sports scenes. This is a huge challenge, because you have to not only work with a lot of moving pieces – particularly the video and sound effects – but you also have to keep up a massive amount of energy while maintaining a sense of reality. This was particularly difficult in The Fighter, I’m sure, because if you watch modern boxing, it’s nowhere near as exciting as it looks on film, but part of her job was to make things a bit more dirty and gritty, stripping the proceedings of its Rocky-esque cinematic appearance.
The responsibility is arguably even more difficult in King Richard‘s tennis action. For one thing, she has to make sure the audience can follow the players as well as the ball (which can be served at over 100 mph) in a much larger space than a boxing ring, so there are a ton of variables that she has to control as each scene goes on, particularly the climactic match between Venus Williams and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. But even in the minor matches, the local amateur events that both Venus and Serena play, the scene is treated with the same grandeur, which I think fits nicely with the overall inspirational theme.
The one drawback is that aside from the tennis scenes, there’s not much to endorse. The film takes place over several years, but you’d really have no indication that any time has passed were it not for characters stating the date or a convenient cutaway shot to a television showing the Rodney King beating. This film shows world class athletes going from adolescents to teenagers, yet they look exactly the same throughout (save Venus’ trademark hair beads at the end). It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it is pretty glaring, like a huge emphasis was placed on one solitary element while the rest was left to the basics.
The Power of the Dog – Peter Sciberras
Sciberras is an Academy debutante, but he has received praise in Australia for his previous work on 2019’s The King. He arguably has the most straightforward assignment of the lot with The Power of the Dog, as there aren’t any real tricks to what he has to accomplish. Instead, his mandate is to create a smooth story that flows according to the moods established by the characters in a given scene.
He does this by playing with focus on and off the screen, taking great care to show only what needs to be shown in each crucial moment, and making sure that the audience is aware of all the wheels in motion as the story unfolds. When Phil Burbank needles poor Rose Gordon, his devious whistles can be heard in all corners of the family ranch, with Phil himself only appearing on camera to give his silent, threatening stare. When he first mocks young Peter for the paper flowers, the shot lingers just enough on them to show the detail and artistic skill that went into making them, only to cut to the shock on Phil’s face when he learns a boy made them, holding for the exact amount of time needed for Phil to change his countenance and shift into delivering sarcastic barbs.
The only times the editing intentionally goes into a more noticeable stylistic territory are when it relates to Phil’s secret shame and his ultimate fate. His few moments of private bliss in his grotto only last a few seconds, but time seems to stand still when he’s there, with multiple shots conveying his sense of contentment, his personal Heaven, if you will. Those are then contrasted with the deliberately extended shots of crafting the fatal rope for Peter, the explanation for how it led to Phil’s downfall, and the long takes that culminate in Phil being proverbially sent to Hell. This is definitely a “less is more” philosophy on the edit, letting the visuals speak for themselves to a large extent, but when Sciberras has to take the reins, he makes it count.
tick, tick… BOOM! – Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum
The only editing duo on our list has one previous Oscar nomination between them, but both are uniquely suited to a film like tick, tick… BOOM!. Weisblum was previously nominated for his work on Black Swan, while Kerstein has received tremendous praise for his work on Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights, meaning he’s quite familiar with both Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s influence. As such, both editors have acquitted themselves quite well when it comes to films that either are direct adaptations of stage musicals, or that play like them.
They also have the most monumental task of the bunch here, because Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical is a tale told in two different contexts: the intimate stage show where Larson (Andrew Garfield) narrates the story while performing with a house band, and the actual flashback story, which plays more like a Hollywood adaptation of a traditional Broadway performance. Kerstein and Weisblum have to make sure that both settings maintain the proper mood and flow, but also cut between them in a way that feels natural and doesn’t jangle the audience’s nerves.
They do a stupendous job. For me personally, I preferred the stage scenes to the “staged” scenes, but that’s just a matter of taste, as occasionally I felt like the bigger moments in Larson’s fantasy were a bit too over-the-top to be totally believable. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t executed with expert precision. Huge production numbers like “30/90” and “Sunday” feel like they could jump off the screen and into your living room, because the editing is its own kinetic observational character. This is the same editing technique that made previous musicals like La La Land and Chicago the successes they were (the former was nominated in this category while the latter won).
But where the editing really got me was in the presentation of songs that blended the two place settings within the same number. “Therapy” is perfectly choreographed, both through the actors’ movements and through the cuts between Jonathan’s apartment and stage, making the song not only peppy but delightfully goofy. The heartbreaking ballad “Why,” is sung by Garfield alone at a piano in the park and surrounded by his band and audience on stage, yet the emotion behind every note never falters, reinforced by the edit showing the consistent intensity throughout. And while both sides of it is within the story world of the film, Vanessa Hudgens and Alexandra Shipp end up duetting “Come to Your Senses” entirely through the editing process, creating one of the more magical moments of the movie.
In no other film on this list is its effectiveness as reliant on the edit as it is here. I’m not saying tick, tick… BOOM! couldn’t have worked without an A+ job by this team, but it wouldn’t have been nearly the movie we experienced without it.
1) tick, tick… BOOM!
3) The Power of the Dog
4) King Richard
5) Don’t Look Up
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, we begin the most fun portion of the entire Blitz process. And for once, neither Disney nor Pixar has a say. It’s Animated Short!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you have edit skills? What are the most important elements in an edit for you? Is there a genre of film that you think relies more heavily on editing than any other? Let me know!