Oscar winners explain why editing, sound editing, sound mixing, and cinematography AREN'T technical categories

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Leading up to the Oscars, we looked at four categories moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” The truth is, there were no technical categories in last night’s telecast: Every winner was honored for his or her creative contribution to the film. In case you missed those earlier pieces — which explain what editors, sound editors, sound mixers, and cinematographers actually do — here are excerpts from winners in those categories that prove the point:

Argo editor William Goldenberg:

“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,’” said Goldenberg, who won his first Oscar for Argo, but was also nominated this year for editing Zero Dark Thirty with Dylan Tichenor and previously for The Insider and Seabiscuit.

The editor begins work when cameras start rolling, and does the first cut of scenes — and of the film — on his or her own. Goldenberg, 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. “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.” 

Just watching the dailies of the climactic scene had Goldenberg’s stomach in a knot, so the tension was already there thanks to great writing, acting, and directing. But he also helped build it. When editors present first cuts 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.

Argo was a tonal balancing act, and never more delicate than in the sequence when Alan Arkin’s character organizes a read-through of the fake hit Argo at the Beverly Hilton.

Goldenberg: It’s a microcosm of the whole movie in a way, because we’re combining all these different tones in this three-minute sequence: the read-through of the fake script, which is with these actors in silly costumes saying kind of cheesy dialogue; combined with a mock execution with the hostages in the Embassy; combined with what our houseguests are doing; combined with stock footage of newscasters at the time. I always felt when I read the script — and I think Ben and [now Oscar-winning screenwriter] Chris Terrio felt the same way — that if we could make that sequence work in terms of mixing all these tones, then it was indicative of how it could work for the whole movie.

I did it over and over and over again until it felt right, moving things around — some things were subtle, some things were big moves like switching sections to not juxtapose anything silly with anything incredibly dramatic and life-threatening. I remember looking at it at some points while I was first cutting it and thinking I had it really good, and then looking at it and going, “I hate this. It’s not working at all.” And then I’d work on it some more. From the point where I hated it to where I loved it, it was a matter of just subtle adjustments. It really does show the subtlety of editing and how little things can upset the whole thing. Michael Mann [for whom Goldenberg cut Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Miami Vice] always referred to it as mercury: you gather it up and then one little part moves off to the side. That’s kinda how you feel when you’re cutting, especially something very sensitive like a lot of the scenes in Argo, where it was so easy to go sideways and mess it up.

For more on what editors do, with additional anecdotes from the Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook nominees, along with Zero Dark Thirty‘s Tichenor, click here.

NEXT: The art of sound editing

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