Here’s a fun Oscars fact: from 1981 to 2013, every Best Picture winner had also been nominated for the Film Editing Academy Award. That’s thirty-three consecutive years that neatly ties excellence in film editing with a film’s ultimate success. From Conrad A. Nervig‘s work on the 1934 film Eskimo to John Gilbert‘s recent success with Hacksaw Ridge, film editors have consistently inspired success through technological innovations and creative chops.
As such, for those looking to expand their technical skills, pick up a few tricks of the trade, and develop their craft, it’s best to learn from some of the greats. Here are five pieces of advice from some recent Oscar-winning film editors.
Find Your Backbone (John Gilbert, Hacksaw Ridge)
The winner of the 2017 Oscar for Best Film Editing, New Zealand-based John Gilbert found international success when Peter Jackson tapped him to edit the first film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, setting the de facto editing voice and style to a series that would ultimately go on to win 17 Academy Awards. His work on Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a great lesson in how to trim a story down to a strong backbone.
You’ve got to look at what the story’s about. You trim away everything that doesn’t support the story, so you’ve got one thing that leads to another to another. You’ve got to boil it down to what the film essentially is about, and work it back up from there. Once you’ve got your spine, you can throw back on the elements to support that, add character and depth to it, and leave out the things that don’t really go anywhere.
Cross, who worked with Damien Chazelle on the original Whiplash short film (and on his follow-up La La Land), has worked his way up quickly with Chazelle to develop a style and workflow that emphasizes character and maximizes discovery.
For the big concert finale, I followed the animatic. But once it all came together and Damien looked at it, we realized that it only barely functioned, without any soul. We put our characters closer into the action. We focused on the right facial expressions and made sure that Fletcher and Andrew were looking more pointedly at each other. And we found that the sequence worked better if we explored more of their character arcs.
Attitude is Everything (William Goldenberg, Argo)
After being nominated for Best Film Editing three times — The Insider (1999), Seabiscuit (2003), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) — Goldenberg finally took home the Oscar for his work on Ben Affleck’s Argo (which, surprise, also took home Best Picture). His career, like his editing style, is a testament to the old adage that hard work pays off. Having worked consistently since the early 1990s (sometimes on several films a year), Goldenberg’s work ethic has been unwavering.
I’ve seen editors that are incredibly talented fall on their face because they’re argumentative and they’re grumpy. You have to have the skills, but you also have to be a positive and hard working man or woman. It doesn’t happen without all those skills. You have to understand, as an editor, it’s the director’s movie and you’re trying to help them make the best movie.
For more insights into Goldenberg’s creative process, watch this behind-the-scenes featurette by Academy Originals.
Be Open to Collaboration (Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, The Social Network)
Image via Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
Film editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall have been the tight-knit collaborative team behind director David Fincher’s last four feature films (and in Wall’s case, all the way back to Fincher’s early commercial days). Together, Baxter and Wall have already won back-to-back film editing Academy Awards for their work onThe Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Like any good partnership, good communication, strong chemistry and an open mind are the keys to good chemistry.
Angus Wall: It’s a very organic, collaborative relationship. Editing is one discipline where you can really share the labor if you have the right chemistry between people. It can be joyous in terms of sharing. It’s not even a very organized way we work. Whatever pops up and needs to be done, whoever gets finished with what they’re working on first takes it.
Kirk Baxter: With the exception that Angus is, at times, more keen to run in head-first into the battle – into something like Gallipoli. Angus doesn’t balk at an incredible challenge, whereas I’ll take three deep breaths and go, “Okaaaay.” The opening scene in The Social Network? That landed on Angus because he was getting the next scene, whatever it was. Boom, that was his. It was a toughie, but he doesn’t hesitate or try to dodge those.
The First Take Can Be the Best Take (Thelma Schoonmaker, The Departed)
Being Martin Scorsese‘s lifelong editing partner has its perks. In addition to working on such classics like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Wolf of Wall Street, the three-time Oscar-0winning film editor gets to work with performances from some of the greatest actors of our day — like Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed.
For Leo it was hard because Jack [Nicholson] was unpredictable. That scene where he goes into the restaurant alone with him and he sort of accuses him of being a rat, Leo had no idea what was going to happen and he was just flying by the seat of his pants, hoping he could hang in there with Jack. Marty didn’t know what Jack was going to do. He pulls the gun on him, he burns the tablecloth, and poor Leo is sitting there trying to react to all of this! So the first take was the best because he was really reacting to it.
For a decorated pro like Schoonmaker, there’s no reason to overthink a solid performance by a leading actor. It’s the subtle nuances of bringing those memorable performances to life that takes real talent and ability.
Top image by Fabio Pagani.