Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, EW.com will take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” First up: Film Editing, with insights from Life of Pi‘s Tim Squyres, Silver Linings Playbook‘s Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, and Zero Dark Thirty‘s Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, the latter of whom also cut Argo, making him one of only a handful of editors in Oscar history to compete with himself. Lincoln‘s Michael Kahn completes the category. (Update: Read our Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography pieces.)
Ask a film editor what the biggest misconception is about his or her role, and the answer is the same: “It sounds funny, but a lot of people tend to think it’s a purely technical job where you literally go in and cut slates off, and the director says, ‘Do that, do that, do that,’” says William Goldenberg, Oscar-nominated this year for both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and previously for The Insider and Seabiscuit. What will surprise those moviegoers then is just how many decisions the editor actually makes — and when. Let’s start with an overview:
• The editor begins work when cameras start rolling, not after they stop, and typically does the first cut of the film on his or her own. “This is something that people always seem surprised to find out,” says Tim Squyres, who’s edited every film Ang Lee has directed but Brokeback Mountain and received an Oscar nomination for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before Life of Pi. “If they start shooting on a Monday, and I get the footage on Tuesday, Ang is shooting another scene on Tuesday, so he can’t be in the editing room. So the editor always does the first pass by themselves. I cut scenes and show them to Ang, and I usually don’t get any feedback, because all he needs to know from me while we’re shooting is whether the scene was covered. If he feels that he has everything he needs, he forgets about it and worries about what he’s shooting tomorrow. About two weeks after the end of shooting, we sit down and watch the whole movie as a movie, and he hasn’t seen it yet. He’s only seen it scene by scene. That’s the way it has to work. Some directors are more involved than others in editing during production — it partly depends on schedule and partly depends on the director’s preferences.”
Goldenberg, for example, who’d previously cut Gone Baby Gone for Ben Affleck, went to the Argo director’s home editing room every Sunday, even during production, to show him his week’s worth of work. “Even though I wasn’t getting specific notes from him, I was getting a feel for what he wanted. It was almost like by osmosis: just having all his conversations in my head gave me a feeling of like, Oh, I know Ben would hate this or I know this isn’t what he’s looking for.” Affleck turned over nearly 1 million feet of film, including a noteworthy amount of footage of a parrot being enticed to squawk for the tense airport finale (which Goldenberg will dissect for us later). “It was really hilarious, because you couldn’t see Ben, but you could hear him off-camera. He’s just squawking and squawking and squawking, and then the bird would finally do it, and he would squawk over the bird or be talking over it,” Goldenberg says. “It was a lot of bird.”
Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, meanwhile, delivered roughly double that amount — or about 320 hours of footage — thanks to her fondness for shooting multi-camera (maybe seven at once on big scenes). It would have been impossible for one editor to handle that volume on their clock, so Goldenberg joined Dylan Tichenor, previously nominated for There Will Be Blood, at the end of shooting. “We were in a little house in Studio City. He was in the master bedroom and I was in the living room,” Goldenberg says. They worked on separate scenes, but consulted with one another and sometimes swapped, like after Goldenberg spent his first month on the climactic raid and showed a 45-minute first cut. “We kinda all knew it was too long, but Kathryn just needed to live with it for a while and sort of enjoy it in all its grandeur,” Goldenberg says. “Dylan did a pass where he was able to make it shorter, where I think if I had done it, somehow Kathryn woudn’t have accepted it as easily. I don’t know why that happens.” Offers Tichenor, “That’s one of the great things about having more than one editor: Someone passes you the sequence and then you look at it fresh and go, ‘Oh, what if we did this, this, and this? And maybe this makes more sense.’ You have this objectivity because you haven’t sat and gone through the work. That helped us enormously in this film.”
What kinds of decisions are the editors making? We asked them to walk us through scenes to show us.
NEXT: Choosing the right take