Monday, February 25, 2008

Editing Oscar Award Winning Movies

Here is a 7-minute video of the 5 Academy Award nominees for Best Editing. Mark Helfrich, who edited Rambo, Predator, Rush Hour, Family Man, X-Men and 30 more movies, gives incisive commentary on the style of each of the nominees and why they were chosen.

Excellent editing is a series of decisions. One key decision is the length of the individual clips. In the Bourne Ultimatum the clips were unusually short (1-2 sec), creating a tense, edgy feeling. In No Country for Old Men, the clips were rather long (7-8 sec) and also led to an almost unbearable tension. In There Will Be Blood, the unflinching camera stays on a static shot of Daniel Day Lewis for an unheard of 25 seconds, cuts away for 6 seconds, then returns for another 25 seconds. The editing does not allow you to look away. It compels you to be involved.

The key is to know which length of cut should be used in different parts of a movie and to understand the impact of that decision. During a particularly emotional vow or toast, we tend towards longer edits to capture the passion and intensity. And when the intensity is boiling just under the surface, and is expressed in a very subtle way, it's even more important to "hold the gaze" and not cut away or it would dilute the impact.

During a fast dancing piece, 1-second cuts (or faster) convey the high level of energy. As Mark Helfrich says, "Imagine having to sift through all your footage to find that perfect 1-second part of the take and stringing these 1-second shots end-to-end to create a fantastic story. A great amount of effort goes into it...and the results are fantastic." Exactly.

Another decision is whether to tell the story in a linear or non-linear way. In Into the Wild, the story was told in a very non-linear way, jumping from the present to the past and back again. Actor Hal Holbrook credits his Supporting Actor nomination to the editing on this film.

Another decision is which 'take' to choose. Good editing can put together the best of each take. How does this apply to us, since we don't direct on the wedding day or ask for a second take? We still have 2 or 3 or 4 camera angles on certain scenes and need to select the angle which is most flattering and which tells the story the best.

Another decision is whether or not to use music. In No Country for Old Men at the moment of greatest intensity, there is no music, just the sounds the protagonist would hear. And because there is no music, each sound is intensified.

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