Oscar-nominated editors clear up the biggest misconception about their category (and explain the decisions you may not know they're making)

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Image Credit: Jonathan Olley

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An editor wants to draw the audience into the story and keep them there. Tichenor paraphrases a quote he’s sure others have said, but that stuck with him when he heard it from Goldenberg’s mentor, Michael Kahn, who’s won three Oscars and is nominated again this year for Lincoln: Editing is often trying to find the least amount of material to effectively tell the story. “Audiences will react, even unconsciously, very badly to repetitive information. If they feel like, ‘Yeah, I got that already, you don’t need to show that to me again,’ then they start to get shifty, or bored, or you lose the tension that you’ve gained up to that point,” Tichenor says.

The Zero Dark Thirty editors point to the section of the film when they’re tracking Osama bin Laden’s courier Abu Ahmed — from the moment they get his mother’s phone number from a Kuwait informant to where they actually find him in his little white SUV driving around Pakistan. “Being able to tell that story clearly, having the audience track along with it, and having it build to a culmination was, I think, one of the more difficult sections of the movie,” Goldenberg says. “Hopefully it doesn’t appear that way, and it’s exciting and great to watch, but there were so many different ways to go…. There was one day where Kathryn and I had moved some stuff around and taken big sections of it out trying to accelerate it, and we thought we had just like done it and we were so excited. And then she was in the other room, and I looked at it more carefully, and I realized, Oh this doesn’t really make sense, because how does this person know that? And the look of disappointment on Kathryn’s face. I was so heartbroken to go to tell her. You felt like it was a punch in the stomach.” (How do they know when they’ve finally got it right? For that, Goldenberg likes to quote director Tony Scott, for whom he cut 2005’s Domino. “He would look at a scene and say, ‘Something itches.’ He didn’t know what it was, but something would bug him, and you’d go attack that area. You’ve just got to work until it doesn’t bug you anymore.”)

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Argo was, obviously, another film that had built-in tension. “Even watching the dailies, my stomach was in a knot,” Goldenberg says. “I remember watching the dailies where they’re all waiting at passport control and I sent Ben an email saying, ‘Just watching the dailies makes me anxious.’ And I think he somehow misinterpreted my email as saying it was a lot of film and I was anxious about it. He’s like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take our time, and we’ll get through it all.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no. I’m anxious because the footage is so good it’s making me feel anxious.’ I knew it would only get better as we cut the pieces together.”

When editors present first cuts of scenes to directors, they like to include rough ideas of sound effects and temporary music, so it feels like a film. It was Goldenberg’s idea to have the sound slowly fade out in the airport to make the audience feel as though they were inside the houseguests’ worried minds:

Goldenberg: What gave me the idea was when Ben Affleck’s character comes into Tehran [earlier in the film], he’s at passport check-in and there’s a little skirmish off to his left. Some guy gets hauled away by the police, and then they stamp his passport, and I made the sound of that passport stamp a little bit accentuated. He’d gotten a little distracted, so it snapped him back to attention, and he clears passport control. When they went through that check point on the way out, I thought it would create a whole different level of tension to slowly drop the sound out. I used this sort of tonal temporary music that had this droning heartbeat feel to it. All the characters were so convincing at looking scared, so I had great shots to cut to and cut away from. I think when you’re super nervous like that, your heart is beating out of your chest and you’re trying not to give that away. It’s not the first time anybody has ever done it in a movie, but dropping the sound out subtly really gets you in each character’s mindset and feeling how terrified they were. Then I used that sound again of the passport stamp to snap everybody back out and bring all the real sounds back. [Argo's Oscar-nominated sound mixing team] was able to take what I did in my Avid, and just make it even better. Instead of a small editing room, it’s got to fill a big theater, so they were able to take that idea and really just make it even more impactful.

Because of all the visual effects in Life of Pi, Squyres and Ang Lee had to find a number of different ways to be able to sit down and watch it like a movie. “We developed a lot of things to put the crude animation and crude backgrounds in right away so that we didn’t have to sit there and watch a boat with no tiger in it and walls of the wave tank with no sky and no ocean,” Squyres says. Still, that wasn’t the toughest part. Nor was editing in 3-D glasses for two years. It was structuring the story — cutting back and forth between the storytellers in the present day and the story that’s being told in the past, and then the extended flashback to Pi’s journey. “Our main character is drifting at sea. He’s not planning the bank robbery or trying to coordinate all kinds of things — stuff just happens when it happens, without any real cause and effect. So to give the audience a sense of being adrift at sea without them feeling like the movie is adrift is actually quite tricky.”

The scene Squyres points to is when Pi gets the stick and tries to train Richard Parker.

Squyres: We had a sense of what their interaction was going to consist of with the stick and the meat, but rather than animating what we thought the tiger might do, we figured we would work with real tigers and let them show us things. We shot about 4.5 hours worth of footage with real tigers on a boat. Now the boat was not in the water, the boat was on a gimbal, the thing that rocks it to simulate water. As our tiger trainer said, “Tigers don’t act. Tigers just behave like tigers.” They gave us all kinds of interesting behaviors, some of which was great reference for the animators, some of which really informed our thinking about what their interaction would be. There’s a shot in that scene where the tiger sharpens his claws on the bench. We never planned that, that’s just what the tiger did. And according to the tiger trainer, that’s a nervous tiger trying to pretend he’s not nervous. So I got all this footage, went through it myself, and then the tiger trainer came in with me for a couple of days and we structured out some possibilities for how the scene could work. Ang came in, and we presented that and figured out what their interaction was going to be. Three weeks after we shot the tigers, we shot the part with our actor, because at that point, he knew, and the animation supervisor knew, exactly what the scene was going to consist of. There are 23 used shots in the film with real tigers, 10 of them in that scene.

Now that you know what an editor does, here’s the kicker: “It’s not always the case that editing should be invisible — it depends on what kind of movie you’re making — but generally speaking, if you’re watching the editing, you’re not watching the movie,” Squyres says. “Ideally, when you’re editing, you’re doing kind of what you would do if you were in the room watching the scene that’s going on. When you cut to something new, it should seem like what you’re seeing now is better than what you would have seen if you stayed where you were. You’re getting some new piece of information that keeps you engaged and involved in the scene. And if it does, then you just watch the story and enjoy it.”

Read more:
Oscar-nominated sound editors explain their key challenges (and the sounds you may not know they create)
Oscar-nominated sound mixers explain what you should (or shouldn’t) notice if it’s done well
Oscar-nominated cinematographers explain how they envelop you in the story
EW’s Oscars Central

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