Editor’s note: Welcome to the sixteenth of a 24-part series dissecting the 81st Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every day leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. To read any other posts regarding this event, please click the tag following the post. Thank you, and enjoy!
By DJ of Matte Havoc.
When I first started college I was very well entertained by the desire to become a successful film editor who would be hired to work on an Oscar award winning film. Now here I am sitting at my computer ten years later wondering why I have never finished that dream. At least I have the opportunity at this very moment to write about the top Oscar nominations for the category of best achievement in editing. Every single one of the nominated movies for the 2008 film season has been an achievement in the entertainment industry for their work. The editors who have been selected as the recipients for the nominations this year have a wide range of professional credits listed to their names. What makes their craft intriguing to me is that their work is expected to be unnoticed by the audience, yet their contribution is what defines the entire framework of the final cut of the story. If the editor’s work is flawed in some way then the viewer will notice that something is wrong with the movie, even if the person is unable to pinpoint exactly what it could be. For the year of 2008 there were several entertaining films that have been worked on by skilled editors, but for this year’s nominees there were a couple of difficult issues for them to face as they are piecing together their work.
Decades ago there was a company that started manufacturing a giant film workstation that was an ideal tool for film editors to slice together film strips that were developed after they were shot by a movie director and his crew. The Moviola workstation is seen in the photograph above and it allows an editor to watch a film strip being projected on to a small screen while comfortably handling and processing the materials as they were being moved through the workstation. Today’s movie editors do not have to worry about handling such bulky machinery since the invention of digital editing workstations such as Avid and Final Cut Pro. Although the computer age has ushered in a convenience of space and organization for the editor’s work room, it has allowed just about anyone with access to a computer to edit a movie right in their own home office. Because of the vast changes in editing technology, the gap between the skillfully, creative editor and the amateur computer user has quickly shrunk. The following nominees have proven themselves to be more than just a YouTube phenomenon.
This film is the lengthiest story of all the nominated movies for this category. Could you imagine the amount of work that the movie’s two editors had to handle in order to complete such a hefty task? The final running time has been clocked at three hours and six minutes from the start of the film to the last name that rolls across the screen in the end credits. Cutting together a three hour epic requires a lot of time to be spent in the editing room bringing together an endless amount of footage that was shot during the production stage. I could not even imagine what the film’s shooting ration must have looked like. A shooting ratio is a figure of how much film was actually shot during the production stage of the movie in comparison with how much of that footage has actually made it into its final cut. Some of the most outrageous figures that have been reported for production shoots include a heavy shooting ratio of 60:1 for Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (that is sixty minutes of raw material for every one minute of screen time) and an incredibly huge ratio of 100:1 for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Whether the editors of Benjamin Button are worthy or not of receiving an Oscar award for their work on the film will be determined by the Academy voters. In my personal opinion there is an opportunity that Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall deserve a fair amount of recognition for the large amount of time they must have spent in post production to bring together the massive story into one seamless film. If they would have failed or stumbled in their work then this film could have easily turned into a horrendously boring story that would feel like it could just go on forever.
Working on a movie that includes a lot of action sequences, special visual effects, and a primary actor who has passed away before the post-production stage had been completed would mean that there would be no room available for a second chance. The editor, Lee Smith, must rely upon what is already available to him as he sits in his editing room piecing together all of the material. If there is a missing link in the story that was not discovered until the post-production stage it is possible for the crew to head back for the process of secondary shooting to add to the editing material. But secondary shoots costs a lot of money when it involves expensive sets, special effects, crew payroll, equipment, and the question of how to handle work around the problem of a dead actor if any of the missing material would involve reshooting a portion of the scenes he has appeared in. The Dark Knight was a perfect collection of action sequences and enough suspense to keep the viewer on the edge of the theater chair. When attempting to produce a successful moment of suspense that leaves everyone biting their nails tensely requires a tremendous amount of skill and collaboration between the director and the editor. For this movie it was successfully edited together in the sequence involving two separate river barges filled with people who are facing their untimely end. The perspective of the viewer jumps between four separate locations during the sequence, and the tension builds even more with each visit to any of the four locations. Will the people who are stuck in the first boat be willing to murder the lives of those who are in the other river boat by blowing it up with explosives? The entire situation is intended to be a very serious and intense, and the audience shares that tense feeling. If it was not edited correctly with the right amount of pacing and tempo then the audience would not experience the first hand feeling of tension that the characters in the story would be feeling. That is the power of excellent movie editing, I believe, and it proves the high quality of the skills of the movie’s editor.
Here is an editing challenge that can be very boring and tedious. You have a pair of talking heads who are sitting in a room together for an hour or so as one asks the other a slew of questions about the other person’s job history. At the face value of this brief synopsis I am sure that the film sounds like nothing more than a boring job interview. But what if one of the two figures sitting in the interview was a former President of the United States who is charged with an illegal crime? Our interest, as the viewer, has been piqued a little bit. However, there is still the opportunity that we could be bored with the interview if it seems to drag on forever. As an editor who is piecing together a very lengthy interview how is it possible to make it intriguing to watch? It can be a tough challenge if the editor does not have the right amount of quality material to utilize. Director Ron Howard was quoted in an interview (found here) that he was thrilled with the job done by the film’s editors. If I were a voting member of the Academy it would be easy to vote for this film. The story’s climactic resolve takes place in an interview. How anticlimactic and physically inactive could that be? It’s an wonderful challenge that was successfully pieced together by Mike Hill and Dan Hanley. Good job, guys!
Editing a film about a real life politician such as Harvey Milk is like doing a term paper for a college class. There is a lot of material from the media that is available to the editor Elliot Graham and the director Gus Van Sant that they probably did not know where to begin. While editing together the archive footage alongside the footage that was shot by the production crew can be daunting for Graham, because he had to have all the material transferred to a unified digital format on his editing computer. some of the archive footage from the late 1970s was shot on 16mm film or Super 8 and then transferred to a tape format such as DigiBeta or Beta SP. Combining those materials with the 35mm film that was used to shoot the dramatic retelling of Harvey Milk’s career can leave Graham in a state of discombobulation if he is unable to find a unified way of piecing together the final cut of the film. Although it is amazing that the computer technology has advanced to an amazing level that allows the editor to bring all these materials together conveniently I would still wonder if the tools that are used is what defines the skill of the artist. That is a topic for debate that I will leave to the professional editors, but reviewing the final cut of the film itself will be judged by everyone who watches it. The use of the archive footage in the movie could only enhance the value of telling the story, which I think is a wise and creative decision that benefits the film.
So, this film is a touching story that is being hailed as one of the best films of the year. But what makes it so special to receive recognition for its editing? It was a balancing act for Chris Dickens to pull together several different stories from different time periods without having one time period over power the others. Not only is there the issue of domination in the time line, but also the balance of progression in the story. It would be premature to have one portion of the story to progress too far ahead before the other portions have a chance to catch up. It is a matter of telling a story in due time without arriving at the story’s climactic ending too early. If the editor is trying to balance several different viewpoints of the same story he shouldn’t allow one aspect of the story to become a runaway production. This dilemma is comparable to the experience of telling a story to a friend who keeps asking questions about something that happens way down the line in your story. If you allow your friend to set the pace of your narrative then your entire story could be a mess. This can be frustrating for the narrator to even tell the story if someone else is trying to set the pace. Editor Chris Dickens has faced that challenge when he was trying to set the pace of the story without allowing one portion of the film to get too far ahead of everything else. It is an excellent job, to say the least, and it should be interesting to see if the hearts of the Academy voters who were enthralled with the film’s story will influence them to vote for this film’s editor.