Any way you splice it
With intertwining narratives and intricate montages, Oscar-nominated editors presented some visually complex films in 2006. But knowing when not to cut is what gave them dramatic punch.Anyone vaguely familiar with film history knows that rapid-fire film editing is nothing new. It was used to great effect as far back as the Odessa Steps sequence in 1926's "The Battleship Potemkin" and Luis Bunuel's influential 1929 short "Un Chien Andalou" on through to the shower scene in 1960's "Psycho" and 1964's "A Hard Day's Night," to cite a few examples.
But what was once daring is now commonplace. Today, aided by the speed and ease of nonlinear computer editing systems like Avid, editors routinely have films jumping back and forth through time and scrolling swiftly through multiple plots without visual or narrative signposts to indicate where they are in the story. And viewers raised on the dramatic juxtapositions of music videos, video games and other high-impact visual media barely blink an eye.
But is all this quick cutting necessary or good, artistically speaking? Three-time Oscar nominee Steven Rosenblum, editor of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Blood Diamond," isn't so sure.
"There are lesser editors who don't even have the skills to do really significant quick cutting," Rosenblum says. "But when really good people do it, they are so skilled that you just buy it.
And that's sometimes a trap, too, because at the end of the day, it's still going to call attention to itself as, 'Look at what I can do,' which almost always works against a story."
Rosenblum is not opposed to engaging in some rapid-fire cutting himself, as long as it's justified by the narrative and the emotions of the characters.
"I cut from the gut, essentially," he says. "Whatever interests me is how I go. In 'Blood Diamond,' there's the scene where we see the boys indoctrinated into the (Revolutionary United Front). It's a musical sequence with African rap music playing, but if you look at the montage itself, it is nonlinear. It goes back and forth in time and in structure, but the emotional tone of the piece is consistent, and therefore, audiences just accept it completely."
Thelma Schoonmaker made a name for herself with her brutal rapid-fire cutting of the fight scenes in "Raging Bull," which earned her an Oscar in 1981. But while that film and her numerous other collaborations with director Martin Scorsese contain more than their share of dramatic montages, they are just as likely to let the action play out inside a static frame.
"I think we are concerned sometimes with the MTV style of cutting because it's hard to sustain," observes Schoonmaker, who won a second Oscar for 2004's "The Aviator." "We use it where we need it, but we're not for it all of the time. Scorsese's always saying, 'Whatever happened to the shot, the beautiful shot like (Stanley) Kubrick makes? It can last for a long time, and you can watch it for a long time.'"
Schoonmaker says that their most recent effort, Warners' "The Departed," required sharper editing and transitions because it's a thriller. But while the film's multiple plot threads unravel in fast-paced montages, some of the more memorable sequences have hardly any cutting at all.
"At the end of the movie, with the shocking shootings in the elevator, Scorsese did most of that in an extreme wide shot -- almost like a proscenium arch in a theater -- for a very specific reason," Schoonmaker says. "He knew what was happening was so powerful that it didn't need close-ups. So, he chose very deliberately to shoot it in a wide shot. When I first saw that wide shot, I was unbelievably affected by it. That's great directing -- knowing when to a use a close-up and when not to."
Schoonmaker's example speaks to the obvious fact that an editor's work is shaped and, to some degree, controlled by the raw footage shot by the director. In the case of writer-director Paul Greengrass' Universal release "United 93," which tells the story of the plane that did not reach the terrorists' target on Sept. 11, that was hours and hours of film shot with two handheld cameras.
"In Paul's films, the nature of the camera work is fairly aggressive, so it has its own built-in energy," says editor Christopher Rouse, who shares editing credits on the film with Clare Douglas and Richard Pearson. "The interesting thing about it is, when you take a camera move that's zooming or whipping around or something like that, the moment you start cutting into it, its energy almost decreases exponentially. We generally started the piece in a more deliberate way to reflect that it was just another day with normal rhythms. And as the piece progressed and as things began to escalate, there was a conscious choice to attack it a bit more aggressively and choose more aggressive camera angles, especially during any sort of action sequence, whether it was the hijacking or the cockpit charge."
Editors Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise couldn't help but resort to the occasional quick-cut montage in their efforts to whittle down the 240 hours of film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu shot to flesh out the four interlocking stories in Paramount Vantage's "Babel," like a Mexican wedding sequence in which a series of plot digressions wordlessly play out against the sounds of corrido music.
"In the script, the Mexican wedding lasts just a few pages," Mirrione says. "But when Alejandro gets on location with the actors, things will grow and stories will become richer visually, with lots of additional small details. The footage -- if it had been cut together in its entirety -- could've easily lasted an hour or two. In editing, it's always a process of narrowing your focus so you can find the core of what the scene's about and its emotion and still have the details that give it a special life."
In Universal's "Children of Men," editor Alex Rodriguez and director Alfonso Cuaron, who share editing credits on the film, ignore the trend toward hyperactive editing completely and create their own distinctive style in which the handheld camera of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki works as its own editor as it moves through long takes.
"Instead of cutting, Alfonso starts some scenes with wider shots on the character on the left, and one minute later, you realize the shot is completely different, but it's going so slowly, you don't realize it," Rodriguez says. "In the film, there's a scene where Michael Caine's character, Jasper, is talking in the background about Theo's (Clive Owen) son, and Clive is pouring himself a drink. They don't see him; he's just listening. The camera moves slowly, and it ends up in a closet with him when Michael Caine says that his son is dead. Then you realize that, 'Wow, in one shot, he changed.' It's like you had a jump cut but without that effect."
Some might feel that this technique detracts from his work as an editor, but Rodriguez doesn't see it that way.
"This way, each cut is very important," he says. "There are very few of them, and they have to be very precise. The change of shot has to completely make sense. It's not just changing because 'I shot some inserts, and I'm going to put them in,' or, 'Oh, look -- the wheels are turning, so we cut to the wheels.' I think that's a little too much."
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