Some great insights on what an editor does, By Mandi Bierly,

Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, will take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” First up: Film Editing, with insights from Life of Pi’s Tim Squyres, Silver Linings Playbook’s Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, and Zero Dark Thirty’s Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, the latter of whom also cut Argo, making him one of only a handful of editors in Oscar history to compete with himself.

Ask a film editor what the biggest misconception is about his or her role, and the answer is the same: “It sounds funny, but a lot of people tend to think it’s a purely technical job where you literally go in and cut slates off, and the director says, ‘Do that, do that, do that,'” says William Goldenberg, Oscar-nominated this year for both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and previously for The Insider and Seabiscuit. What will surprise those moviegoers then is just how many decisions the editor actually makes — and when. Let’s start with an overview:
• The editor begins work when cameras start rolling, not after they stop, and typically does the first cut of the film on his or her own. “This is something that people always seem surprised to find out,” says Tim Squyres, who’s edited every film Ang Lee has directed but Brokeback Mountain and received an Oscar nomination for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before Life of Pi. “If they start shooting on a Monday, and I get the footage on Tuesday, Ang is shooting another scene on Tuesday, so he can’t be in the editing room. So the editor always does the first pass by themselves. I cut scenes and show them to Ang, and I usually don’t get any feedback, because all he needs to know from me while we’re shooting is whether the scene was covered. If he feels that he has everything he needs, he forgets about it and worries about what he’s shooting tomorrow. About two weeks after the end of shooting, we sit down and watch the whole movie as a movie, and he hasn’t seen it yet. He’s only seen it scene by scene. That’s the way it has to work. Some directors are more involved than others in editing during production — it partly depends on schedule and partly depends on the director’s preferences.”
Goldenberg, for example, who’d previously cut Gone Baby Gone for Ben Affleck, went to the Argo director’s home editing room every Sunday, even during production, to show him his week’s worth of work. “Even though I wasn’t getting specific notes from him, I was getting a feel for what he wanted. It was almost like by osmosis: just having all his conversations in my head gave me a feeling of like, Oh, I know Ben would hate this or I know this isn’t what he’s looking for.” Affleck turned over nearly 1 million feet of film, including a noteworthy amount of footage of a parrot being enticed to squawk for the tense airport finale (which Goldenberg will dissect for us later). “It was really hilarious, because you couldn’t see Ben, but you could hear him off-camera. He’s just squawking and squawking and squawking, and then the bird would finally do it, and he would squawk over the bird or be talking over it,” Goldenberg says. “It was a lot of bird.”
Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, meanwhile, delivered roughly double that amount — or about 320 hours of footage — thanks to her fondness for shooting multi-camera (maybe seven at once on big scenes). It would have been impossible for one editor to handle that volume on their clock, so Goldenberg joined Dylan Tichenor, previously nominated for There Will Be Blood, at the end of shooting. “We were in a little house in Studio City. He was in the master bedroom and I was in the living room,” Goldenberg says. They worked on separate scenes, but consulted with one another and sometimes swapped, like after Goldenberg spent his first month on the climactic raid and showed a 45-minute first cut. “We kinda all knew it was too long, but Kathryn just needed to live with it for a while and sort of enjoy it in all its grandeur,” Goldenberg says. “Dylan did a pass where he was able to make it shorter, where I think if I had done it, somehow Kathryn woudn’t have accepted it as easily. I don’t know why that happens.” Offers Tichenor, “That’s one of the great things about having more than one editor: Someone passes you the sequence and then you look at it fresh and go, ‘Oh, what if we did this, this, and this? And maybe this makes more sense.’ You have this objectivity because you haven’t sat and gone through the work. That helped us enormously in this film.”
What kinds of decisions are the editors making? We asked them to walk us through scenes to show us.
Choosing the right take
As Life of Pi’s Squyres puts it, “An actor might read a particular line between six and 100 times, but only one take’s gonna be in the movie.” It’s the editor’s job to pick it, at least initially. It was on Sense and Sensibility, his fourth film with Lee, that Squyres had the epiphany all good editors experience: “It was the first film that I had done with Ang that was all in English, and it’s Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alec Rickman, and Hugh Grant — these great, great actors. When you get footage like that, you realize that your job is really not technical. It was my job to look at something that Emma Thompson had done and say, ‘Eh, that’s not good, I’ll use this other one instead.’ And not only was I allowed to pass judgment on these tremendous actors, I was required to. I think every editor gets to that point where you go, ‘Oh, they’re actually asking me to be an artist.'”
Great directors and actors give editors a range of performances to choose from. “So part of the editor’s job is to go through these performances and calibrate which is the right tone, which is the right level of intensity to use,” says Crispin Struthers, a first-time nominee for David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (the first film in more than 30 years to have acting nominees in all four categories). The early scene he and fellow editor Jay Cassidy, a second-time nominee after Into the Wild, point to is the fight Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) have when a hopeful Pat returns from a run and seeing his friend Ronnie and tries to call his ex-wife, who has a restraining order against him.
Cassidy: There was a tremendous amount of dialogue that was added on the set. He tries to call his ex-wife and he gets a disconnected signal, and then he tries to call Ronnie and leaves a message for Ronnie, and Pat and his father begin to fight over the handset of the phone, and the fight goes on for about 2 minutes. David shot a tremendous range of performance. In doing the first cut, we tended to do the most extreme version of a scene first. The Bob De Niro in that first cut, boy, you saw a Bob De Niro from Raging Bull. It was creepy.
Struthers: It was intense. A bit too intense. (Laughs)
Cassidy: And it was five minutes long. It could never stand at that length, but it’s the only way where the editing is a continuation of a discovery on the set of how this behavior should be calibrated in the film. You sort of begin with the extreme and then peel it back. What was interesting is that it got peeled back to about a 2 minute and 26 second scene, and then we didn’t change it for about 2 months, and it was always about De Niro and Bradley fighting over the phone and “Take your medication, take your medication.” Then we got to the first preview, and we took it out completely. So the first time we previewed the picture, De Niro simply complains about the Redskins beating the Eagles and the doorbell rings, and it’s 12 seconds long. This 5-minute scene got squeezed down to 12 seconds. In the second preview, we put some pieces of it back, and it was 23 seconds. And then the third preview, it got a complete recut, and we chose new performances, especially on De Niro, and they were kind of a gentler Bob. What David had said he was looking for was Bob’s anguish at seeing his son so manic, as opposed to his anger at not taking the medication. So in the third preview, all the dialogue about “Take your medication,” “I don’t need my medication” was all taken out, and it simply became about “Don’t behave this way,” and it was really about the character’s pain at seeing his son in this fashion. And then that version got recut again for the seventh preview, and then the final cut of the scene was done in July.
Struthers: As Jay says, we went for the most intense, full-on Robert De Niro amazing performance first. And then we realized this was too much too soon for this film. We couldn’t peak this early and build up to crescendos that were gonna come later. That’s why we initially overreacted by pulling it back to almost nothing, before coming back to the kind of Goldilocks scene that we arrived at, which did what it was meant to.
Cassidy: Also, when we looked at the scenes before it, we realized that before Pat’s run, they had argued already about taking the medication, so if you left all of Bob’s protesting in about “Taking your medication,” it almost felt redundant. I remember when we changed the takes, it was like, “Oh, we’re looking for this thing on Bob that’s the pain of it,” and there was one take in particular. Pieces of that take had been used, but only when you took out the other material, the “Take your medication, take your medication,” could you see what De Niro was doing. Fantastic.
Believe it or not, Struthers adds, that later bedroom scene of Pat Sr. breaking down (pictured) while telling Pat that he wants to do everything he can now to help him get back on his feet was, at one point, not in the movie, as they were looking to trim. They weren’t sure they could go from Pat Sr. being that emotional with his son upstairs to Pat Sr. giving his son a pep talk about attending the Eagles game downstairs. “We were thinking, Gosh, you can’t have both of these De Niro scenes right next to each other,” Cassidy says, “but you know what, you could.”
The tonal balancing act was also at the center of Argo, and never more delicate than in the sequence when Alan Arkin’s character organizes a read-through of the fake hit Argo at the Beverly Hilton.
Goldenberg: It’s a microcosm of the whole movie in a way, because we’re combining all these different tones in this three-minute sequence: the read-through of the fake script, which is with these actors in silly costumes saying kind of cheesy dialogue; combined with a mock execution with the hostages in the Embassy; combined with what our houseguests are doing; combined with stock footage of newscasters at the time. I always felt when I read the script — and I think Ben and [Oscar-nominated screenwriter] Chris Terrio felt the same way — that if we could make that sequence work in terms of mixing all these tones, then it was indicative of how it could work for the whole movie.
I did it over and over and over again until it felt right, moving things around — some things were subtle, some things were big moves like switching sections to not juxtapose anything silly with anything incredibly dramatic and life-threatening. I remember looking at it at some points while I was first cutting it and thinking I had it really good, and then looking at it and going, “I hate this. It’s not working at all.” And then I’d work on it some more. From the point where I hated it to where I loved it, it was a matter of just subtle adjustments. It really does show the subtlety of editing and how little things can upset the whole thing. Michael Mann [for whom Goldenberg cut Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Miami Vice] always referred to it as mercury: you gather it up and then one little part moves off to the side. That’s kinda how you feel when you’re cutting, especially something very sensitive like a lot of the scenes in Argo, where it was so easy to go sideways and mess it up.
The hard line Bigelow drew for the tone of Zero Dark Thirty is, perhaps, best explained in the sequences she didn’t use.
Tichenor: She only reacts to things when they feel real to her. I mean, there are scenes cut out of the movie and they were expensive, and they took a long time to shoot, but it just wasn’t part of the movie for her. One of the very early sequences involves Ammar, our detainee played by Reda Kateb, who did so well in the movie. There was a whole sequence where Daniel, Jason Clarke’s character, goes in with a local ISI team, and on a tip, they’ve infiltrated this little town and find him in a house and extract him. There was a little action sequence with a little chase through the house and an alley way, and they grab him. Kathryn saw that first cut, and the sequence played really well, quite like a Michael Mann movie, I thought, (Laughs) and she just said, “You know, when I see this, I feel like someone is showing me a movie. I don’t want to feel like I’m watching a movie. Let’s try to do it without it.” And we did, handedly. It made one of the most striking cuts in the movie, actually, to go from the 9/11 montage of sound in the beginning to just the hard cut of the sun streaming through the window in the detainee center and Jason walking in. It’s a stomach-clenching moment.
Keeping the story rolling when everything is happening, and when you’re simply adrift
An editor wants to draw the audience into the story and keep them there. Tichenor paraphrases a quote he’s sure others have said, but that stuck with him when he heard it from Goldenberg’s mentor, Michael Kahn, who’s won three Oscars and is nominated again this year for Lincoln: Editing is often trying to find the least amount of material to effectively tell the story. “Audiences will react, even unconsciously, very badly to repetitive information. If they feel like, ‘Yeah, I got that already, you don’t need to show that to me again,’ then they start to get shifty, or bored, or you lose the tension that you’ve gained up to that point,” Tichenor says.
The Zero Dark Thirty editors point to the section of the film when they’re tracking Osama bin Laden’s courier Abu Ahmed — from the moment they get his mother’s phone number from a Kuwait informant to where they actually find him in his little white SUV driving around Pakistan. “Being able to tell that story clearly, having the audience track along with it, and having it build to a culmination was, I think, one of the more difficult sections of the movie,” Goldenberg says. “Hopefully it doesn’t appear that way, and it’s exciting and great to watch, but there were so many different ways to go…. There was one day where Kathryn and I had moved some stuff around and taken big sections of it out trying to accelerate it, and we thought we had just like done it and we were so excited. And then she was in the other room, and I looked at it more carefully, and I realized, Oh this doesn’t really make sense, because how does this person know that? And the look of disappointment on Kathryn’s face. I was so heartbroken to go to tell her. You felt like it was a punch in the stomach.” (How do they know when they’ve finally got it right? For that, Goldenberg likes to quote director Tony Scott, for whom he cut 2005′s Domino. “He would look at a scene and say, ‘Something itches.’ He didn’t know what it was, but something would bug him, and you’d go attack that area. You’ve just got to work until it doesn’t bug you anymore.”)
Argo was, obviously, another film that had built-in tension. “Even watching the dailies, my stomach was in a knot,” Goldenberg says. “I remember watching the dailies where they’re all waiting at passport control and I sent Ben an email saying, ‘Just watching the dailies makes me anxious.’ And I think he somehow misinterpreted my email as saying it was a lot of film and I was anxious about it. He’s like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take our time, and we’ll get through it all.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no. I’m anxious because the footage is so good it’s making me feel anxious.’ I knew it would only get better as we cut the pieces together.”
When editors present first cuts of scenes to directors, they like to include rough ideas of sound effects and temporary music, so it feels like a film. It was Goldenberg’s idea to have the sound slowly fade out in the airport to make the audience feel as though they were inside the houseguests’ worried minds:
Goldenberg: What gave me the idea was when Ben Affleck’s character comes into Tehran [earlier in the film], he’s at passport check-in and there’s a little skirmish off to his left. Some guy gets hauled away by the police, and then they stamp his passport, and I made the sound of that passport stamp a little bit accentuated. He’d gotten a little distracted, so it snapped him back to attention, and he clears passport control. When they went through that check point on the way out, I thought it would create a whole different level of tension to slowly drop the sound out. I used this sort of tonal temporary music that had this droning heartbeat feel to it. All the characters were so convincing at looking scared, so I had great shots to cut to and cut away from. I think when you’re super nervous like that, your heart is beating out of your chest and you’re trying not to give that away. It’s not the first time anybody has ever done it in a movie, but dropping the sound out subtly really gets you in each character’s mindset and feeling how terrified they were. Then I used that sound again of the passport stamp to snap everybody back out and bring all the real sounds back. [Argo’s Oscar-nominated sound mixing team] was able to take what I did in my Avid, and just make it even better. Instead of a small editing room, it’s got to fill a big theater, so they were able to take that idea and really just make it even more impactful.
Because of all the visual effects in Life of Pi, Squyres and Ang Lee had to find a number of different ways to be able to sit down and watch it like a movie. “We developed a lot of things to put the crude animation and crude backgrounds in right away so that we didn’t have to sit there and watch a boat with no tiger in it and walls of the wave tank with no sky and no ocean,” Squyres says. Still, that wasn’t the toughest part. Nor was editing in 3-D glasses for two years. It was structuring the story — cutting back and forth between the storytellers in the present day and the story that’s being told in the past, and then the extended flashback to Pi’s journey. “Our main character is drifting at sea. He’s not planning the bank robbery or trying to coordinate all kinds of things — stuff just happens when it happens, without any real cause and effect. So to give the audience a sense of being adrift at sea without them feeling like the movie is adrift is actually quite tricky.”
The scene Squyres points to is when Pi gets the stick and tries to train Richard Parker.
Squyres: We had a sense of what their interaction was going to consist of with the stick and the meat, but rather than animating what we thought the tiger might do, we figured we would work with real tigers and let them show us things. We shot about 4.5 hours worth of footage with real tigers on a boat. Now the boat was not in the water, the boat was on a gimbal, the thing that rocks it to simulate water. As our tiger trainer said, “Tigers don’t act. Tigers just behave like tigers.” They gave us all kinds of interesting behaviors, some of which was great reference for the animators, some of which really informed our thinking about what their interaction would be. There’s a shot in that scene where the tiger sharpens his claws on the bench. We never planned that, that’s just what the tiger did. And according to the tiger trainer, that’s a nervous tiger trying to pretend he’s not nervous. So I got all this footage, went through it myself, and then the tiger trainer came in with me for a couple of days and we structured out some possibilities for how the scene could work. Ang came in, and we presented that and figured out what their interaction was going to be. Three weeks after we shot the tigers, we shot the part with our actor, because at that point, he knew, and the animation supervisor knew, exactly what the scene was going to consist of. There are 23 used shots in the film with real tigers, 10 of them in that scene.
Now that you know what an editor does, here’s the kicker: “It’s not always the case that editing should be invisible — it depends on what kind of movie you’re making — but generally speaking, if you’re watching the editing, you’re not watching the movie,” Squyres says. “Ideally, when you’re editing, you’re doing kind of what you would do if you were in the room watching the scene that’s going on. When you cut to something new, it should seem like what you’re seeing now is better than what you would have seen if you stayed where you were. You’re getting some new piece of information that keeps you engaged and involved in the scene. And if it does, then you just watch the story and enjoy it.”