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Oscars 2010: Film Editors Do Battle

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I find it terribly hard to judge some of the technical categories. Editing is one of those categories that gives me trouble. I mean, how do you objectively judge good editing? Isn’t it one of those cases where you know it when you see it? Better yet, isn’t good editing that which you do not see? Probably. This is what makes it so hard for me to judge.

Generally good editing will go along with good filmmaking. However, judging the editing is a technical exercise as opposed to an emotional one, so there needs to be some sort of separation of the two. An interesting fact to note is that this category is very closely tied to the Best Picture category in that throughout the editing awards history to date (it came about in 1934 at the seventh awards ceremony), only nine films taking the top honor did not have a corresponding editing nomination. Granted, a win here does not ensure a victory, but the nomination seems to help. Interesting to see how these things go together, isn’t it?

All right, let’s get to it. There are five films nominated in this category and all five of them are nominated for Best Picture. Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. Now, it is interesting to note that of the presumed top three contenders for Best Picture one is not up for editing. That film is Up in the Air. Will this hurt its chances? Interesting… maybe we only have a two-film race.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire: Joe Klotz

A good film to be sure, but I cannot say the editing did much for me. Of course, this is not a flashy visual film intended to wow and excite the eye. What makes the film work on a technical level is very similar to what makes it work on an emotional level. The film makes the viewer a fly on the wall and the editing reflects this by moving us around the scene, always with an eye on where the movement is. Still, I cannot say I found it particularly special, but then I do have an untrained eye. Still, this has to be the dark horse when I look at the other nominees.

District 9: Julian Clarke

Here is my favorite movie of the year; it clicks on so many levels, and that drove it to the top of my list. With that being true, I do not think it can be considered a contender here, although I feel it is a stronger choice than Precious. The film uses a couple of different styles to great effect. Early on there is the jumpy first person/documentary style that draws you in, then that gives way to a more action film-oriented style that maintains the feeling that you are right there in the action without the documentary feel. It moves you from being a third party viewing intimate footage to being a full blown participant in the action.

Inglourious Basterds: Sally Menke

Quentin Tarantino’s films always have a distinctive look to them. This one is no different. The key is always to keep the pace moving forward. However, there is also a responsibility to the scene and making sure the pieces work right on their own and when combined into the whole. In the case of Inglourious Basterds, that means to also show some restraint and know when not to cut. There are some very long sequences in this film and some shots are held for a long time. Case in point: the opening sequence with the dairy farmer has some great long hold moments that work to great effect. Sally Menke was previously nominated for Pulp Fiction.

Avatar: Stephen E. Rivkin, John Refoua, James Cameron

This film has great forward movement that makes the two-hour and 40-minute running time just fly by. I have read that the editing process began well before the shooting was anywhere near complete. The 3D film was edited in 3D as well. The film elements were broken down into many layers and edited in pieces. For example, they were able to combine different pieces like the face and body of the Na’Vi characters giving them the ability to use different takes to piece the performance together. This is in addition to the live action elements. I have no idea how deep, technically, voters will look into the act of editing to see how incredible this project is. I suspect the finished product is the final judge and as great as this is, I suspect it will be a close second in the voting. James Cameron previously won for editing for Titanic; for both co-editors this is their first nomination.

The Hurt Locker: Bob Murawski, Chris Innis

Here is your winner. This is a movie that takes you right inside the action with the bomb techs. This film has a very tight, tense feel that makes it feel very personal. There are character moments that drill in on our main characters that work very well, but it is the action sequences where the editing shines. The editors had hundreds of hours of footage from digital and Super 16mm sources to work with, which had to be a chore and a half to work with. They use a great mix of first person perspective, wide shots, and tight close-ups to draw you in and keep your attention. This is a very strong, well paced film. This focus and tight, personal editing is what will push this to the top.

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  • doug m

    Much like your cinematography piece, your opening fumbles along, with almost the same words, and makes clear you don’t understand your subject matter, as Bryan clearly demonstrates. Many, particularly members of the French New Wave, who made a virtue out of the jump cut, would also disgaree with your assessment that editing shouldn’t be seen or has no emotional context.

    You should put in some effort to learn about the subjects you are writing about if you expect anyone to take you seriously.

  • Better yet, isn’t good editing that which you do not see?

    That’s a very old school Hollywood approach to film editing. Good editing can (and should!) be as much an artistic decision as cinematography, music, acting, etc.

    However, judging the editing is a technical exercise as opposed to an emotional one…

    Well, no, that’s not really true either. Sure, there’s a technical component to editing, but there’s also a poetic one. The juxtaposition of images appeals as much from an emotional/visceral perspective as it does from the intellectual.