Oscar Blitz 2023 – Film Editing

Let me tell you about the first video project I ever edited. It was my junior year of high school, and I was taking an AV elective, one that I actually had to come in early for, as I was one of about eight or ten kids who wanted to take the class but it didn’t fit into our schedules, so the school created “Period Zero” so that we (as well as a Spanish class and AP Calculus I think), could come in at 7am and take the course before homeroom.

After learning some basic stuff like how to assemble a tripod and record with video cameras (part of the class was broadcasting football and basketball games over public access) and a crash course in CB radio, we moved to the school’s new (for the time) studio space, a disused classroom that was emptied out with a small platform stage put in, along with two TV cameras, a switchboard, and a reel-to-reel VHS edit deck. It was there that we spent most of our class time after the first month of the term, as our final grade was based in large part on three major projects: an “assembly” edit, a longform three-act fictional show, and a documentary (mostly so we could learn to use a microphone to record voiceover).

For the assembly edit, the important lesson for us as students was just figuring out how to use the deck, as well as logging tapes to pick out the clips we wanted to use (everything had to come from home). We were taught how to cue up the moment on the left-side tape (preview), then the blank/in-progress one on the right side (program), then hit record button and watch both VCRs rewind for five seconds before the left side footage transferred over to the right. We were also shown how to hook up a CD player to record audio onto our tapes, as well as how to adjust volume with a rudimentary mixing board. The assignment was to then to create a video assembling clips from various sources as well as some music to make sure we got the concept. We also had to create a title card and credits with what few effects and wipes we had on the machine. I chuckled heartily because the deck had two wipes that were animated silhouettes of women that I had literally seen when I was home alone and sneaking a look at my parents’ porno collection.

Because my brain is wired differently, and because I wanted to challenge myself, I asked if we could do the work in reverse. The teacher, Mr. Doyle, had shown us how to copy the video, and then lay over the music. But this being 1998, with MTV still showing music videos and living up to the literal definition of its name, I was curious to see if I could put down the music first, and then just transfer mute video to correspond with it. Everyone in the class looked at me funny, but Mr. Doyle (who we affectionately sometimes called “Doylenz”) indulged me and we played around with the machine for a few minutes to ensure that it was indeed possible. Basically I had to record black video over the length of the tape (what he called “control track,” which allowed the other video to transfer), copy the audio over that, and then re-edit actual footage on top of the blackness.

At that point, I had my idea locked in my head. The others just wanted to take some movie clips and put a soundtrack on them, because that’s all that was required to demonstrate that you knew what you were doing. I, however, instantly started cataloguing my entire video collection mentally. Being a teenager, and really loving things that blow up in movies (I have since grown out of this, while Michael Bay has made billions doing nothing but this; clearly I’ve gone wrong somewhere), I came up with a concept where I would create a montage of all the best explosions I had access to. I even knew the music I wanted to use. I went to the library and found a recording of the “Nutcracker” suite, and borrowed the CD long enough to serve my purposes. I wanted the “Russian Dance” because of its distinct downbeats (hard to describe, but Google it and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about), and ironically, although I had a VHS copy of Fantasia, which has the song in the film, I couldn’t use it because that would have meant transferring video on top of video, which the deck couldn’t handle. It just overwrote the previous video, including the audio attached to it.

Deciding to stick to a theme, I collected about a half dozen or so science fiction movies from my house (because my folks weren’t into action or R-rated films, so these were the only sources of pew-pews and boom-booms I had), and set to work logging. It took a week to find all my clips, mostly because it took forever to scan the movies. I knew there were booms, but I didn’t realize how deep into the films they were. I think this was the first time I really became aware of how movies are paced and timed out. Imagine my shock at being a fan of Star Wars my whole life and not realizing that Alderaan doesn’t get destroyed until over an hour in.

The “Russian Dance” is only a minute long, so presumably my project would be short. But because I was trying to create an actual montage, I took way longer than any of the other students to complete it. I wanted to time each loud instrumental blast to correspond with the visual blast of the film clip. I had to learn how to scroll frame by frame to pinpoint the exact instant I wanted, and because film explosions are relatively quick (only 2-3 seconds mostly) and the song is so fast with so many bombastic moments, I found myself making only incremental progress each day. I even stayed after school and devoted my study hall periods to make sure I finished by the deadline.

After what felt like a month, I had my finished product, which I dubbed Sci-Fi Blast. I made a title card with a scrolling space background, and did the same for the end credit roll. The project begins with a brief countdown timer from The X-Files: Fight the Future that leads to the first explosion and triggers the music. For the next minute, I blew something up every other second, in time with the soundtrack. During the brief bridge in the middle I put a few more drawn out ones in, as well as another countdown clock, this time cycling back and repeating the last two seconds as the music builds back up to the main melody. The last rush continued the explosions on the beat, and in the final crescendo, I put in a third ticking clock before the final triumphant note, which was of course the destruction of the Death Star.

When I turned in my tape, I was relieved, mostly because I had never put in so much effort on any school essay or other project before. I was known among the faculty for trying the harder courses of action on major assignments, partially because I wanted to stand out, and also because I wanted to to test myself and have something to put on my transcripts when applying to college. For example, in my freshman year, for the required research paper everyone had to do in English class, while everyone else picked a generic topic like drugs, religion, or like, dolphins, I chose “Modern Stage Drama,” basically trying to suss out when the “modern” era began (I settled on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House). It was so involved and so esoteric that I had to borrow books from other schools’ libraries through a newly-formed inter-district loan program to get it done.

But I had never even put a fraction of the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears into something as I had with Sci-Fi Blast. I saw a chance to use a new toy to tell a visual story the likes of which I had never conceived. I got a 97% grade on the project (I had a couple typos during the credits because I rushed that last bit to make sure I met the deadline), but Mr. Doyle asked if he could borrow the tape to make a copy, which he then used for a few years (until the school got funding for digital editing equipment and scrapped the analog deck) as part of the lesson for the class (which was only one period the year before I took it, but expanded to three during my year with the inclusion of Period Zero, and eventually became available in equal time with Mr. Doyle’s photography class), including the other two periods later in the day taking the class at the same time as me. He also gave me access to the classroom on weekends, as he and the girls soccer coach arranged a deal where I would be hired out on Saturdays to record their games for training purposes. I got paid $10 cash per game.

It was the first time that I realized my love of television and film could actually become my career. Through an unexpected degree of passion and dedication, I found out that I had a future in this. Maybe this was a less sentimental version of my own Fabelmans-style moment. I don’t know. Over the years of working as a professional editor and becoming disillusioned with some of the realities of the industry, it’s definitely not something I’m all that excited about anymore, and I’ve moved on to what became my true passions of writing and producing. I treat editing now as a skill I developed completely by accident, and it’s one that’s served me well, one I can tap into whenever I feel like it, like when I make my YouTube videos. And somewhere in a box, I still have the original VHS tape.

But the appeal of telling a story, hell, LEADING a story with a creative edit, is now ingrained in me, and it’s why when I get to this category every year, it’s one of the ones I look forward to most, because it’s the one area where I know that I can speak with bona fide credibility. From those days making Sci-Fi Blast, to a music video I made of my school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof set to Weird Al Yankovic’s “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi” that I spent even more time on a year later as a surprise for the cast party, to making the jump to digital and non-linear editing in college, to all my years spent as a professional editor in the sports world, this is, for better and worse, a part of my identity, and seeing what tales can be told from those decks will always hold a fascination for me. Thanks, Doylenz.

This year’s nominees for Film Editing are…

The Banshees of Inisherin – Mikkel E.G. Nielsen

Of all the candidates this year, Banshees is probably the most straightforward and subtle. There aren’t really any fancy accoutrements in the edit, with much of the focus being centered around the dialogue. That said, there are still some great smash cut shot changes that help to visually illustrate the distance between the characters from a physical and metaphorical standpoint, as well as the isolation that many of them feel in certain moments, whether it’s showing Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson walking in opposite directions but spying one another from very far away, or by digitally inserting the actual war for Irish independence into the background as a contextual macrocosm of the film’s events. This is mostly just pure function, but occasionally these cuts also aid in the dark humor.

But as I said, the core of the edit is in how the conversations and tensions are presented. This is done in two major ways. First, given the intentionally redundant nature of the central feud and Farrell’s lines, the edit is used as a means to maintain the smooth pace, making sure to keep things as efficient as possible so that the audience doesn’t get bored. Second, given the importance of verbal language to the main conflict, Nielsen takes care to highlight moments where the characters use body language and other non-verbal cues to get their points across. This happens especially often when Farrell and Barry Keoghan rehash what we already know. Instead of just holding the shot and letting the characters talk, Nielsen finds the right moments to cut to a brief twitch of the eyes or a hand gesture (the entire movie is a “hand gesture” from a certain perspective) to reinforce the importance of the moment.

There’s nothing really flashy going on here, and the edit largely remains a background element, never asserting itself over the performances, the script, or really the cinematography. But like some of the fates of the characters themselves, it effectively serves its purpose, finding the way that it can do most good. Compare this to a film like Bohemian Rhapsody, which won this category in spite of the fact that it was mocked in part for the overuse of edits, highlighted by several scenes that were fairly simple bits of dialogue to advance the plot, but which contained dozens, if not hundreds of cuts. When done properly, it helped demonstrate the frenetic nature of the band as depicted in the movie, but from a practical standpoint, it was just overkill. Nielsen makes sure to avoid that potential pitfall. He won this category two years ago for Sound of Metal, using similar techniques back then that he does here, chiefly knowing when to let the scenes breathe, and when to help them along by focusing on the visual rather than the audible, though obviously, given that film’s story, the effect was far more pronounced than it is in Banshees.

Elvis – Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond

A major part of the reason I just didn’t care for this movie was because, given my former vocation, the aggressive over-editing was painful to watch. I get the idea that Baz Luhrmann was going for when he tasked Villa (who also edited The Great Gatsby) and Redmond with the project. He wanted to depict Elvis Presley’s life as a whirlwind montage of highs and lows, almost like a fever dream, and in his mind the edit was going to be an essential part of that equation, especially the use of music (diegetic and non) and sound effects to reinforce the visual. It’s the same basic principle I used all the way back in high school, though obviously on a much grander scale. But here’s the main thing to keep in mind: Sci-Fi Blast, a dinky project made by a 16-year-old, was a minute long, while this lasts for over two and a half hours. Eventually it gets VERY tiresome.

Like a kid playing with a new toy, I got the impression that Luhrmann got super excited about seeing an Avid station (or whatever equipment they used) for the first time, and just decided that EVERYTHING had to be used. And sadly, Villa and Redmond didn’t have the heart or courage to tell him, “No.” As such, the final product is one long glut of an extended montage, with most scenes never staying still long enough to leave an impression, and every digital effect and transition that Luhrmann can think of just haphazardly thrown at us. Spinning guitars are used as dissolves, newspapers used as wipes, multiple blurred shots bleed into one another. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. It’s like ADHD rendered on the screen (and good God I can only imagine how long these effects took to render).

The best editing jobs are the ones that either enhance the story or define how it’s going to be told. Because Luhrmann’s film has no actual story to tell (no, really, go over it again in your head; the entire actual plot lasts 10 minutes), he just has his editors vomit out whatever shiny thing he finds next in the drop-down menu. I’m honestly surprised we didn’t get star wipes in this thing. That’s how ludicrous the edit in Elvis becomes, and it’s a perfect example of what not to do.

However, I do want to focus on the positive as much as I can, and there was one sequence in the film that genuinely worked for me. Early on, as young Elvis discovers his love for music, the scenes masterfully cut between a gospel church revival and an intimate shot of a blues man singing and playing his guitar, and it’s the combination of these two scenes that informs Presley’s style and artistry going forward. While it’s a sensationalized take, and probably wholly inaccurate, it’s also the perfect thesis statement for what Luhrmann was probably trying to do. If the rest of the 150 minutes lived up to those two, I’d have wholeheartedly endorsed the movie.

Everything Everywhere All at Once – Paul Rogers

On the flipside, this is a perfect example of how to properly lead with the edit. There’s a preciseness with just about everything in this film that is needed to get the fun of the action and comedy across, as well as the emotional resonance, and this is 100% down to Rogers’ editing.

First and foremost, in any film heavy on fight scenes, you need crisp, fast-paced editing to sell the adrenaline. However, unlike the films in Marvel Cinematic Universe, this movie knows how to do it right. The cuts should be minimal, only used in the most economical way possible, to establish character positions, follow the choreography, and keep things focused. In the MCU, you get multiple cuts for a single thrown punch, which is not only wasteful, but stupid. Here, if there’s a single cut mid-movement, it’s to alert the audience to something important they need to notice in the midst of the maelstrom. It’s not just about changing the angle, it’s about changing the perspective.

And then, of course, there’s the thematic purpose of using the edit to illustrate the various jumps between universes. No better do we see this than when we first meet Joy as Jobu Tupaki. Sitting in a bar drinking a beer in her hoodie, Joy, now possessed by her multiversal self, tilts her head from one side to another, with each movement aligning with a complete change in the scenery around her, as if she’s flipping channels on the television. This instantly keys the viewer in to the randomness of everything that’s about to follow, as well as the cold, calculating threat that Jobu represents.

When she reveals herself in the hallway, dressed to the nines in a better Elvis costume than the actual costuming in Elvis, things get kicked into fifth gear, as every move Jobu makes is met by another cut that rewrites the rules of the previous shot, including slapping a guard with a dildo or popping his head like a confetti-filled balloon. In order to make this convincing, you have to be frame-perfect in executing these cuts. Otherwise, they’ll look jittery and fake because of slight alterations in the actors’ movements from take to take.

The attention to detail here is off the charts. To think about how meticulously Rogers and his team had to be in pinpointing the exact instant where a cut had to be made to ensure it felt seamless is to give myself a migraine. This is a big part of why I don’t edit professionally anymore. I know when I’m outclassed. I just do not have the patience for this anymore, to say nothing of the trustworthy eyesight. Thankfully this is a project that had brilliant execution from the beginning, because if all that effort was put into something subpar, it would sour otherwise dedicated people.

Tár – Monika Willi

I’ve spoken at length about how Todd Field has constructed the narrative of Tár to be a visual representation of the title character’s spiral and fall from grace, and the edit is a crucial aspect to make it work. Just as Lydia herself begins the film with lengthy, sweeping authority only to be whittled down to a curt shadow of her formal self, so too does Willi’s editing reduce itself as the film wears on.

I’ve mentioned many times the opening lecture hosted by the New Yorker, and how commanding Cate Blanchett is in the scene. She gives verbose monologues in answer to Adam Gropnik’s questions, pontificating and delighting in her bully pulpit. As she goes on, you can see that there are almost no cuts while she talks. Lydia is given the floor, and Willi gives her the screen, only changing the angle when the conductor is done making her point in a given moment. As we go on, there are more and more cuts, like those between Lydia’s main apartment with her wife and child, and the solo apartment where she arranges her music and becomes more intimate with her cellist. By the end, there are several more shot changes in each scene, which themselves are cut shorter and tighter, to the point that her climactic cold-cocking of Mark Strong is the last shot that noticeably extends beyond a few seconds.

This is a case where each of the major elements of the film work together to form the director’s cohesive vision. In illustrating Lydia’s hubris, folly, and destruction, Todd Field made sure that everything worked in tandem, from Blanchett’s performance, to the script, to the cinematography, and ultimately to the edit. Everyone had to be on the same page and follow his lead, and by extension Lydia’s, in order to make it work, and Willi has done a fine job.

Top Gun: Maverick – Eddie Hamilton

A seasoned veteran of action editing, Eddie Hamilton is a great example of how to keep an audience engaged. Which is to say, he’s never worked on an MCU film (and X-Men: First Class is the only Marvel property he’s worked on at all). However, he is a known commodity for Tom Cruise, having worked on the last two Mission: Impossible films, as well as the upcoming two-parter Dead Reckoning. He’s also handled the deck for the Kick-Ass franchise as well as the first two Kingsman movies, all of which featured heavily stylized combat. Suffice to say, his credentials are well in order.

Just like with Paul Rogers, Hamilton knows how to properly keep a fight scene exciting by moving the pieces around the center of the frame rather than just changing the shot a hundred times. It’s a bit more difficult with a movie like Top Gun, because the action sequences don’t involve human choreography, but rather a combination of stunt flying and visual effects. The task for him is to make the aerial combat and training believable and realistic without it devolving into a mass of explosions and CGI.

The trick he pulls is two-fold. First, he’s very selective with the moments where the scenery changes from an exterior shot of the planes in the sky to an interior one with the pilots in the cockpit. There’s a flow to the energy of these scenes that has to be maintained so that we can fool ourselves into believing that a dogfight (real or simulated depending on the plot point) is taking place on the screen. He has to choose the shots where the actors are looking in the precise direction they need to, then cut to a shot that justifies the motion, before bringing it back inside the plane to repeat the process, making use of all four uniquely-positioned cameras inside the aircraft.

The second part is the movement of the omniscient camera within the frame of the shot. The IMAX cameras that were invented and fit to the planes are called “Full Frame,” because they allow for the most height and width available within the aspect ratio, which Hamilton can then use to flip and turn the shot on a dime, creating a first-person effect that makes it feel like we’re flying along with the cast. It isn’t exact, and I’m sure there are moments where CGI and background compositing had to be implemented for the most intricate sequences, but for the most part, Hamilton is able to zoom and rotate the footage in a way that creates an exciting and immersive illusion due to the scale of the shots themselves. At least, that’s my guess as to how it was done, what makes the most sense in my head. I could be completely off base, but from what I’ve read, that seems to be how he pulled it off, and it’s quite impressive.

My Rankings:
1) Everything Everywhere All at Once
2) Top Gun: Maverick
3) Tár
4) The Banshees of Inisherin
5) Elvis

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, we bring the final full week of breakdowns to a close with video analysis of the last chapter of this year’s Shorts program, allowing me to gush (and lightly criticize) my absolute favorite part of the Blitz. It’s Live Action Short!

Join the conversation in the comments below! How much do you know about editing? Do you have practical experience in other production elements? Did any of my anecdote make even a lick of sense? Let me know!

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