We take at the look at the best editing nominees for 2013 and learn from the pros what makes a well-cut movie.
22 Feb 2013 - 3:24 PM  UPDATED 22 Feb 2013 - 3:24 PM

In the Oscar sweepstakes, it's possible to draw a line between the winner for best editing and best picture. Since 2002, the best picture scored best editing six times. It happened that way half a dozen times in the '90s too. In the '80s, it was three times.

“There's a gut feeling among both academy members and the movie going public that if you like the film, if it flowed, if it had rhythmic drive, if it was compelling…,” California-based editor Steve Cohen ACE, told SBS, “then the editing was probably pretty good.” Cohen is an Academy member and will vote in this year's Oscars. He is right now cutting Reach Me, directed by John Herzfeld and starring Sylvester Stallone, Tom Berenger, Kyra Sedgwick, and Lauren Cohan.

Editor Mark Warner, currently Head of Editing at the Australian Film TV and Radio School, concurs and adds: “For me, editing becomes bad when I'm aware of it. And I never go into a film to look at the editing.” Warner is an Academy member and, like Cohen, also voted this week, “and I'm not telling who for,” he joked to SBS Film. Warner has worked between LA and Sydney: his recent credits include the new Australian comedy Goddess for Mark Lamprell with Magda Szubanski, and Taylor Hackford's new thriller Parker starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez.

It's not always the case, but this year the five nominees for best editing are all best picture contenders; many of the players involved are no stranger to Oscar or so-called prestige pictures.

Up for the prize are: William Goldenberg for Argo, who has often worked with Michael Mann and was nominated with his co-editors for The Insider; Tim Squyres, Ang Lee's regular cutter, for Life of Pi; Michael Kahn, for Lincoln, a veteran of Spielberg pictures who has been nominated a record eight times (he won for Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List and Raiders of the Lost Ark); Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers (3 of Us) for Silver Linings Playbook. Cassidy, another veteran has worked in both drama and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth; Goldenberg is competing with himself for Zero Dark Thirty, a nomination he shares with co-editor Dylan Tichenor, who has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman.

It's a conventional wisdom to suggest that the nominations themselves – especially in craft areas like editing – possess a certain integrity since it was, in this case, the editing membership of the Academy that determined them in the first place. Still, the final vote on the winner includes all membership. That makes the business of predicting Oscar wins, in any category, notoriously unreliable since the ultimate vote is so deeply informed by personal politics, business and sentiment as much as aesthetic values.

Still, what makes the best editing, 'best editing'?

“Well, that's the $64,000 question” says Cohen, “largely because it's unanswerable.” And that's because, he notes, no one can ever be sure what the editor had to work with.

Indeed, editors will tell you that it is part of their job description: to 'make work' all those problematic issues that interfere with a movie's story. Not just technical faults and bad performances but values like structure, tone, mood and, of course, rhythm and pacing.

Editors are traditionally, those craftspeople that work the longest, one-on-one, with the director. In public, directors might take the credit, but in private and amongst their filmmaking peers, editors as a rule, are highly valued. That's because what a movie can be, its potential, is determined in the editing room. Still, the editor's role can be – and often is – somewhat misunderstood, explains Warner.

“I think if a film is lousy in its dailies [that is the un-edited material captured on set], it's probably still going to be lousy,” he says. An editor can try to make stylistic choices to make things play better, Warner reckons, but “that's a massive compromise…this idea that editors can 'save' a film is a misconception. A good editor heightens the good stuff that already exists.”

Jason Ballantine ASE, president of the Australian Screen Editors Guild, suggests determining what is 'best editing' may well be an exercise in speculative thinking: “The only people to know with some authority the degree to which an editor contributed to the success of the film is the editor themselves and their director,” he told SBS via email, “and possibly their producer – depending how involved they were in the creative process of shaping the story in post production.” Ballantine recently completed co-editing The Great Gatsby for Baz Luhrmann and is currently co-editing Fury Road for George Miller.

In so far as the Oscar nominations go, Cohen says: “We can make educated guesses about what material the editor had to work with and how it was manipulated.” But there is an irony known to all in the business: “An editor might do their best and most challenging work on a relatively weak film,” says Cohen, “that didn't find an audience.”

Part of the ideal behind the Oscars is to bring attention to the 'best' (within certain strict boundaries) and the 'state of the art' (ditto).

Warner says this year's best editing nods are all technically strong but also “have some thing else going on thematically and I like that”.

The nominees are, of course, distinct and diverse, but offer up several formal challenges, says Warner. Sometimes this is to do with the size scope and complexity of their stories – see: Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi, Lincoln and Argo – and sometimes to do with complex character arcs as in Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi.

An undervalued part of the editor's art (one especially missed by most critics) is the way a good cutter can seamlessly integrate multiple storylines and parallel action; keeping all elements coherent, balanced and transparent; a feature, says Warner, of the editing in Zero Dark Thirty, Argo and Lincoln.

Generalisations about 'national' styles can be treacherous, but it's probably safe to say that American cinema is noted for its emphasis on story while disallowing ambiguity and ambivalence for the more (arguably) emotionally satisfying values of moral uplift and redemption.

What's interesting about this year's nominations, namely Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln, are the risks they take in the way that the audience is asked to engage with them. “I don't think they're 'on the nose' at all about what they are saying,” says Warner.

Whatever the relative merits of the best editing nominees, Warner says that each of them represents a style that feels right and true for the material. There is little evidence that the editors and filmmakers fell prey to those trendy tics of technique that can 'get in the way of the movie'. For instance, none of the best editing Oscar films feel 'over-cut' i.e. too much fast editing – to select one highly debated area of contention amongst filmmakers. Nor do they dwell on action too tightly for too long (with no corresponding wide shots to establish and develop action).

Of that particular visual quirk, Warner says it has to “do with repurposing media on smaller screens”. A function of the fact that now we have had generations grow up on consuming movies and TV on phones, computers, etc; unsurprisingly 'the shot in close' technique seems all pervasive and without national and generic boundaries.

Cohen agrees: the Internet and touch screens of all sizes have changed what cinema is, he says. “Audiences who once enjoyed their movies in a theatre on a forty-foot screen now watch them on tiny screens,” he notes. “At the same time, audiences have become much more distractible and editors have to work harder to get their attention.”

But, Cohen says, certain things are eternal. “We've been sitting around campfires, telling and listening to stories, for millennia, and our basic understanding of how they unfold is more or less hardwired.”