Film Editors Go for Gold at the 89th Academy Awards®

By in Video Editing

In the course of writing my Art of the Cut interview series for ProVideoCoalition, I’ve had the good fortune to interview most of the Best Editing Oscar® nominees for the last several years and have interviewed all but six of the Oscar® winners for the last two decades. And of this year’s nominees, I’ve interviewed all of them, though I interviewed Hell or High Water’s Jake Roberts for his previous film, Brooklyn. All of this year’s nominees used Media Composer and Avid NEXIS or Avid ISIS. To read all of the Art of the Cut interviews, check out this link.

Joi McMillon, Moonlight

Joi McMillon is in the feature film editor’s seat for the first time on Moonlight, co-editing with a Nat Sanders, with whom she’s worked together many times. Both of them have edited for director Barry Jenkins since they went to film school together.

 

MCMILLON: Nat and I have worked for Barry before on other projects. Nat was the editor of Barry’s first film Medicine for Melancholy and I worked with Barry on various commercials. I also did a short with him called Chlorophyll so we both have worked together with Barry and we know his like cinematic style. We know how he liked to approach his films. So collaborating with him in editorial is fun because we’re all such good friends and we’re so close, it didn’t feel like work.  We had such a good time in the edit room and it was close quarters because we worked in one office together and I was on one side of the office and Nat was on the other and Barry would basically just bounce back between the two of us working on different scenes of the movies, so, it was fun because a lot of times like they would be working on something and they’d be like “Hey Joi turn around and look at this” and then vice versa; when Barry was working with me he’d say, “Hey Nat, how do you feel about this?”

 

HULLFISH: Is there a difficulty in editing dialogue scenes with so little dialogue?

MCMILLON:  It’s funny because it can be challenging because in the first 7-10 minutes of the film, the character, Little, doesn’t speak and Juan is trying to get him to talk. I think cutting a scene without a lot of dialogue can be challenging. As an editor you have to rely on the actor’s performance and their looks to be an anchor for the audience to grab on to and still be engaged in these scenes even though there’s not a lot of dialogue going back and forth between the two characters.

 

HULLFISH: There’s a great cut that I wanted to talk to you about in the scene between the mom smoking crack in the car and then there’s this hard cut to a staring contest essentially between the mom and Chiron in their apartment do you remember that?

MCMILLON:  I remember, well. That was a section that Nat cut, but I do remember seeing that for the first time and just being like “That’s so powerful!” And the choice of not being able to hear what she says and then later coming back to that in act 3 I thought it was such a smart decision and to me I feel like that hard cut, you know, I feel like even though you didn’t get to hear what she was saying that look that Little is giving you is just so crushing so as an audience member I feel like you could put just about anything in her mouth and know that whatever she said it’s just such a huge blow to Little.

 

HULLFISH: That’s one of those classic juxtapositions, right? Tell me a little about those chapters, they’re two different things there’s a chapter break and there’s a chapter name, why did you not put together, you know what I’m saying?  There’s a hard cut to black at the end of each one of the age jumps from child to high-schooler to man with some flashing lights and then a few seconds later, a minute later then there’s the chapter name.

MCMILLON: Yes, it’s a tribute to how Barry wanted to tell the story and he was very specific about the chapters and breaking up the different acts and then revealing the name of each chapter and so basically what we were trying to do with the audience is just drop you in to the story without any information so first get to experience Little, you first get to experience Chiron and then you get to experience Black and then we give you the name that they’re going by in this particular story so it was for the audience to experience who this person is for a little bit and then give you their name so, it was just basically how Barry wanted to reveal each section of the acts.

 

HULLFISH: One of the other things – it happens twice that I remember in the movie – the decision to have non-sync sound on a closeup during dialogue. It happens with the mom and once with Kevin when they first meet at the diner and it’s like a slow-mo shot of Kevin in a close up, but he says Chiron’s name and then the mom does the same thing when he spends the night and she doesn’t know where he’s been and she’s like “Where were you” and it’s non-synced.  Why, what was that decision?

MCMILLON:  One of the things that Barry wanted the audience to experience is these moments that although you know for certain that they were playing in real time as you’re experiencing them it feels slowed down and so what he wanted to do was convey those feelings so by slowing it down I think it made the audience really, really respond and reflect to this moment that is actually so hard hitting to Chiron because he’s seeing his mom, in the courtyard he’s experiencing her in this way where she’s obviously high and then when he’s reunited with Kevin it’s this moment that he’s probably played in his mind over and over again on the drive down and as it’s happening and as they’re looking at each other.  We wanted to slow down that moment so the audience really felt the impact of it on Chiron.

Click here to read the full interview with Joi McMillon.

Joe Walker, ACE, Arrival

Editor Joe Walker, ACE is widely respected by his peers. After his 2013 Oscar® nomination for 12 Years a Slave he edited Sicario, which – though not nominated, was widely hailed as one of the best-edited films of the year, and was nominated for an ACE EDDIE. Walker joins his Sicario director, Denis Villenueve again, for Arrival.

 

HULLFISH: Editing is an art-form that plays with and uses time as one of its most important artistic ingredients. This film, by its very plot was about the fluidity of time. Did that give you a lot of freedom?

WALKER: We had all that material by the lakeside of the child’s life that could really go into the film in pretty much any order. There were a few set pieces that were intended for certain places like the discussion of ‘non-zero sum game’. That was as scripted. But a shot of a horse out of focus with the child looking on, an encounter very similar to standing in front of a heptapod for the first time, or like the shot of the twig that looks like a heptapod’s leg scraping the surface of the water – they didn’t really have much in the way of narrative drive by themselves, so they could go anywhere.

Another freedom was that every single TV or computer screen – and there are thousands of them – was shot as a green screen, so we had to construct news reports and archive to convey this idea that the world is descending into some sort of paranoia and instability. All of that was very free, but it took time – picking archive, writing news reports, filming presenters, creating graphics.

And of course we had empty space where the aliens were going to be – two of the main characters were completely missing from the dailies. On set they had someone holding a tennis ball to show where the eyeline should be – puppeteers, dressed in green latex (never a good look). So there was just enormous scope to change things and tweak the story as we went along.

 

HULLFISH: People say that when you have limitations it makes art easier in a way. People think it’s harder, but to have that kind of freedom is actually very difficult.

WALKER: Well we benefitted from the dollars available to be able to say very late in the process “we never see them arrive, let’s see the spaceships disappear at the end of the film.”  It was reassuring to have our VFX supervisor Louis Morin telling us “Anything is possible.” But yes, limitations are stimulating also, without them no ‘A bout de souffle,’ no jump cuts.

 

HULLFISH: You’re going to have to explain that reference to me.

WALKER: Sorry, yes, just a bit of film school nerdism.  I’m thinking of Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle which effectively put the jump cut on the editing map.  I’m taken with the fact that, depending on which story you choose to believe, he used jump cuts either because he had to cut the film down drastically after the print had been struck, or that he didn’t have the money to film reverses on set.

 

HULLFISH: How did you even organize all of the Flashback/flashforward material? Typically,  everything in scene 15 is in the scene 15 bin. You open it up and you’ve got eight shots and you know, “OK this is this is my sandbox.” But for you, scene 15 might have pulled from all this other information from Louise’s life with her child. So how did you organize that?

WALKER: There was a folder for that material, broken down into bins based mostly on location or activity.  I had a good memory of the material. I’d watched everything several times over and played around with it in different combinations and shapes and there were always clear hero shots right from the outset. There was just tremendous potential to create something poetic and lyrical out of this material and it’s just following your gut for what shot should be next, which shots should contrast with each other  – sometimes using music or alternatively sometimes turning all the sound off and just letting things work as a silent movie.

 

HULLFISH: What were the challenges with the exposition that was at the beginning of the film? Trying to kind of explain what was happening around the world and getting on with the part of the story that we all want to see … but first you have to explain the world we’re in.

WALKER: There are two worlds, really.  The choice was to take our time to show how at odds Louise would be with the military environment. For example, all the ‘flashback’ footage of Louise and her daughter at her lakeside home has no screens – whereas the military base is a dominated by them, even the observation room where we meet the heptapods is one giant cinema screen.

 

HULLFISH: Talk about building tension – there’s a critical phone call near the end of the movie. The tension of what’s going to happen is really palpable. Talk to me a little bit about how you built that tension and what you were doing during that phone call editorially.

WALKER: The phone call to the Chinese general and the sequence where she meets him at a party were never intended to be cut together. They were scripted as separate scenes. Louise is on an airfield and has a memory of meeting and talking with the General, then she runs off to find a satellite phone to make the call to get her message across to him before soldiers track her down. Our approach to that didn’t solidify until relatively late, a good few weeks after the first audience previews. We wanted to be as tense and uncertain about what she should do as she was, whilst adding in a race against time throughout with Louise being hunted by the soldiers.  We were always trying to crack the juxtapostion because the two scenes weren’t really performed to intercut. It was something that just took a while to get right. Glad we did it though – without it, we just felt that the audience kind of knew what was going to happen and the story just played out if not lagged behind them for a while.

 

HULLFISH: I had no idea that that was not scripted as an intercut scene, it feels so right as an intercut scene.

WALKER: For many weeks, 25 or 26 weeks, they were separate. And to add an appropriate climax to all this tension we added in post the shells’ grand departure, and that huge wall of the TV news reports. None of that was intended.

I’ve progressed to feeling about editing that it’s all just paper you can cut up and move around, like a Victorian toy theatre. Anything to get the story heading to its magnetic north.

Click here to read the full interview with Joe Walker, ACE.

John Gilbert, ACE, Hacksaw Ridge

John Gilbert, ACE has an impressive filmography which includes, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bridge to Terabithia, Chasing Mavericks, The November Man, and the recently released Mel Gibson film, Hacksaw Ridge.

 

HULLFISH: People view dailies very differently from each other. How do you view the dailies?

GILBERT: These days people shoot three of four hours of material every day and I haven’t got the patience or the memory to view it from top to bottom. Actually, I think we had nine hours of footage one day. I work in text view which is a little old fashioned I know. I’ll have the assistant set up the bins and I’ll have them create a KEM roll for each scene. And so that’s my dailies – so I can scroll through and look at it all quite quickly. I have continuity notes in front of me and they’ll put a little description beside each shot that says medium shot or close-up or whatever.

The assistants break it down into scenes for me, and I skip through the circled takes to start with, just to have a look at what sort of coverage I’ve got. I like to get an idea in my mind about the shape of the scene, where I’m going to use the wide shots, where I’m going to use the close-ups, and how to best use the coverage I have. I like to find what I think are they key moments in the scene and make a note of any magic I find in the performances. I make a ‘selects’ sequence as I go, which I make in story order, and that becomes the basis for my first edit. It is also useful if the script supervisor has a good relationship with the director and is able to give me insight into what they were thinking, and any moments they loved when shooting.

So then I’ll start throwing it together in the kind of shape that I envisaged, and as it comes together it evolves. Maybe other ideas become apparent and the circled takes work, or maybe they don’t, and I’ll start exploring for other performances or action that enhances what I’ve come up with.

 

HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about modulating the temperature of a performance.

GILBERT: Yeah I think you’ve just got to go with your gut instincts on these things. I’m always looking for a performance that I believe and something that feels real to me and not contrived and something that works within the scene. I look at how the characters respond to each other. So much is conveyed with their eyes, the timing of edits around moments of eye connection is important to me.

 

HULLFISH: Cutting on a look.

GILBERT: I think the moments of eye contact between characters are very important. Finding those moments of connection and using edits to emphasize them – or otherwise, if the story requires it – is part of making the drama work.

 

HULLFISH: How do you work through a scene from the beginning?

GILBERT: When I first watch the material I pull out what I think are key moments or anything that I think looks like it should be in the scene – just sort of a selects reel – and I’ll put that in story order. Once I have those key moments I can play it down and build the scene out from there.  I’m first off looking to tell the story, but that’s usually pretty straight forward. Next, I’ll look for where the sub-text is, the stuff that’s bubbling away under the surface, and see if I can add complexity there so that the scene can work on more than one level.

I usually put a scene aside after working on it the day after it was shot, and then go back to it a day or two later. It’s then easy to see more objectively how it’s playing, as you can get lost in the minutiae of a scene sometimes.

 

HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about pacing. You kind of alluded to one of the reasons why you make cuts by what’s moving things along or even using looks between actors. What’s one of the things that’s determining the pacing of a specific scene?

GILBERT: Well I like to pace things quite aggressively. I never want an audience sitting there thinking “I know what’s going on and I know what’s going to happen next.” I want to be ahead of the audience. I want to keep them on their toes so that is the first and foremost thing that determines pacing for me.

You have to choose your moments when you can play long and there aren’t that many moments you can play long – so pick them carefully. Variation in pace is also critically important. You can’t be one pace fast or one pace slow. It’s boring. You’ve got to work out where you go fast where to go slow and I try to go fast on exposition and slow on emotion.

 

HULLFISH: How important is the sound design in selling the cuts and selling your scenes?

GILBERT: Sound design is of course very important. With something like a battle scene sound design is a huge part of it. The edit needs to have the soundtrack filled out to get the pacing right. This movie has three major battles in it, and the first one, which is eleven minutes long, I decided quite early on that there would just be sound effects and no music. The sound guys were pretty surprised by that and pleased because they don’t often get that. They said, “These things are usually filled with music.” But I wanted the first battle which is an incredibly intense assault to be sound-effects driven. The second battle I wanted to escalate the emotional intensity, so I thought by holding back the music until then I could do that. It’s about six minutes long and in this battle, our guys get overrun and adding dramatic music worked well there. The music helped the emotional progression of the movie. I wanted to create a relentless onslaught that the audience couldn’t hide from. It was total mayhem, but it had to be mayhem that had a structure too so you knew where you were and what was going on. And then there is a third battle, which was more of a ballet, so it was different again much shorter, but a lot of it played between 48 and 96fps.

 

HULLFISH: To go back to dailies, do you use markers in the Avid or paper notes or anything when screening?

GILBERT: I think it would be a good idea, but I never do it for some reason. I just create a little selects roll as I go through. I’ll pull out anything that I think is important. And I’ll put it in a story sequence so that’s how I keep track of things.

Click here to read the full interview with John Gilbert, ACE.

Jake Roberts, Hell or High Water

Editor Jake Roberts started in documentaries and did some TV episodic editing before working on several features. Roberts has been busy. Prior to editing Hell or High Water Roberts edited Trespass Against Us and the film I interviewed him for, Brooklyn.

 

HULLFISH: The director and editor spend more time together on a movie than pretty much anyone else, so you’ve got to like each other and trust one another –   know that you can hang out with this person for an extended time.

ROBERTS: It really does come down to “Do I want to spend three months in a room with this person?”

 

HULLFISH: Cutting on Avid? With an ISIS? What was the editing team like?

ROBERTS: Yes, Avid on an ISIS. Over the course of the production I had three assistants due to all the moving around but only ever one at a time. Once in London we just had two stations on it and were cutting in a facilities house called Molinare where we were also doing our grading. What was fabulous about it was that they would allow us to project the movie in their huge grading theater on a weekly basis. It made so much difference because when you see the film with scale, the rhythms of the film, the places you make the cut, are quite different.

 

HULLFISH: I was about to ask about that. Can we talk about that more at length? I’m cutting a film now mostly on a computer screen and about a week ago, we finally projected it on a much larger screen and I was struck by the difference in my sense of pacing… some scenes I wanted longer because the eye needs more time to roam from place to place.

ROBERTS: Even in this day and age where one has to accept – as depressing as it is – that some of your younger audience are going to see your movie on an iPhone – you still cut it for the best possible environment, which is opening night in a great theater, so you have to imagine a 70′ screen. It’s to do with where your eye goes. If the screen is large enough that your eye can’t take in all of it at once, inevitably it’s going to go to a certain point on the screen.   And if you have an image that has a lot of information in it, your eye takes several extra beats to take it all in and then to find the focal point in the frame – the salient point. So one of the things that I try to do is to make sure that your focal point in the outgoing image is similar to the incoming one, so that you’ve drawn their eye to a similar point in the frame, so it’s an easier transition for the audience to track into the next shot because they don’t have to scan the frame.

It’s also about things that you see on the big screen that you just don’t catch on the small screen. Sometimes things you’re hoping the audience won’t notice. Bad continuity or bits of equipment or various bits of sleight of hand that we try to get away with often are exacerbated by having a much bigger frame. Usually it comes down to wanting to slow the film down a little bit because if the image is bigger then you need more time to absorb it. While cutting it’s a great thing to see your film regularly on as big a screen as you can manage.

 

HULLFISH: I’m fascinated by the fact that your father was a screenwriter. I think of the screenwriter and the editor as two halves of a whole: the beginning and the end. In my interview with Pietro Scalia, he said that “Editing is writing with images” which is a quote that I loved. Talk to me about your sense of story, which perhaps you picked up from your father, and why that understanding of story is critical for an editor.

ROBERTS: I think it’s absolutely essential. Some people have said to me that editing is essentially re-writing the film. Certainly it is a very similar narrative process. The structure that’s there in the script may or may not work as intended, so the rhythms of that structure may have to change. 20 pages of script, which would be your first act, may actually distend to 40 minutes or more of screen time and in the edit you need to get it back to 20 minutes because that’s the right rhythm, for the piece, so you need a very good understanding of which bits you need to keep and which bits you can lose. I think narrative storytelling comes down to two things: information and timing: what information does the audience need and when do you give it to them? And I think inevitably it must have helped for me to grow up reading screenplays and talking about them and watching movies. I never went to film school. I’ve read a lot of books and theory and I love storytelling, but it’s mostly intuitive rather than learned.

Although I did a lot of documentaries for many years and the type of documentaries I tended to be involved with were observational, fly-on-the-wall, with no narration, where you’re dealing with hundreds of hours of footage and no coherent narrative plan. That’s such great schooling for telling a story because you talked about editing being a form of writing and with documentaries you are literally writing the narrative as you go and imposing that narrative structure yourself, because documentaries tend to conform to the same principles of storytelling. It’s that way for a reason. You still have acts. You still have an audience with a similar attention span. You have to play all of those games, but with none of the crutches one is afforded with a dramatic feature. So if you can wrestle 250 hours of random footage into a coherent 90 minute piece with acts and structure, by the time you get to making a feature film with a script by a talented writer which has been developed for months if not years, it’s – I wouldn’t say “easy” – but a lot of the heavy lifting has been done for you. For me, documentary was a great training ground in that respect.

Click here to read the full interview with Jake Roberts.

Tom Cross, ACE, La La Land

Tom Cross, ACE won the 2015 Oscar® for Best Editing for the film Whiplash, which was hailed as an editing masterpiece. He also co-edited Joy. His next collaboration with director, Damien Chazelle is La La Land.

 

HULLFISH: Is there a trick to musicals, or is it just like any other editing?

CROSS: I found it more challenging because there is this whole other element in play, which is the music. Usually you make an edit decision based on a number of different factors which include emotion, story, continuity, geography, etc.  In the case of a musical film, you consider those factors but also have to consider how your cuts line up with the music. There are some adjustments you just can’t make musically because it doesn’t sound right. Then you have to bend the picture either through cutting or through speed ramps to fit the music. Precision is very important to Damien. He used to be a competitive jazz drummer so he’s very particular when it comes to rhythms.

 

HULLFISH: You’re working again with Damien, a director that you’ve worked with before. Talk to me a little bit about that collaboration between you two guys.

CROSS: When we first met we immediately hit it off. We found that we loved a lot of the same movies and the way that Damien spoke about editing told me that he really understood it’s potential. Damien gave me a list of movie references and told me that he was really inspired by the films of Jacques Demy as well as Hollywood musicals from the 50s and 60s—Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather and West Side Story. Chazelle is really is a big fan of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and also The Young Girls of Rochefort. Those were two big La La Land inspirations. I think it’s very helpful when a director can share anything that is an inspiration. Cinematic references are especially helpful because you don’t have to translate as much. If a filmmaker says, “I was really inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright”, I have to do a little more deciphering. If someone can say, “I want the music scenes to feel like the boxing scenes from Raging Bull,” that is going to give me a pretty good idea of what it maybe should look like or feel like.

 

HULLFISH: That was your reference for Whiplash, correct?

CROSS: That’s right.

 

HULLFISH: But La La Land’s pacing is very different from Whiplash.

CROSS: Damien wanted La La Land to employ different editing styles to support different emotions and moods.

Damien always saw the film as having different rhythms of romance. When they meet at the eighties party, there’s a brusque energy. The characters don’t like each other. They try to cut each other down to size with comebacks and the pace of the cutting reflects that. The putdowns come one right after another. With every quip you feel each cut.

Later, during the “A Lovely Night” number, we slow down and take our time as the characters feel each other out. They’re curious and we begin to feel some romantic tension. We show it through a single, unbroken take on the hilltop at night when they look for their cars.

Next, when they’re fully smitten with each other, the pace reaches a fever pitch. They run around town in a quickly cut montage of LA landmarks during the Summer.  We jump to the jazz club where the camera whips back and forth between Sebastian playing piano and Mia dancing. The cutting is fast and Damien wanted to express what it feels like to be in love and to be swept off your feet. It’s electric.

In general, Damien always knew that one cutting style would enhance the other. Long, unbroken takes, for example, would only be effective if used in a measured way. The soft edges and curves of the dance on the hilltop would have to be balanced out with the sharp edges of scenes such as the John Legend concert.

 

HULLFISH: What about the intercutting? Was there any consideration of breaking that up so it was shorter pieces, or did you always want to take it from being on the highway to all the way to the night club with each of them?

CROSS: We always felt that the character introductions played better in longer stretches, separately, because it emphasized how alone each person is before they meet.

Click here to read the full interview with Tom Cross, ACE.

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Steve Hullfish is a film and TV editor and author of six books on editing and color correction, including his latest: “Art of the Cut” due out in early March and “Avid Uncut: Workflows, Tips and Techniques from Hollywood Pros.” Hullfish has edited five feature films, including “War Room” (2015) and “Courageous.” (2012). He also produces for his own production company, Verascope Pictures, and trains top professionals around the world in editing and color correction. His Art of the Cut series of editor interviews is available on-line at www.provideocoalition.com/tag/art-of-the-cut.