Oscars: 'Boyhood,' 'Whiplash' Editors Reveal Their Secrets

Editing Imitation Game - H 2014
Jack English/The Weinstein Company

Editing Imitation Game - H 2014

Sandra Adair and Tom Cross, along with 'The Imitation Game's' film editor William Goldenberg, share how they spliced together their movies

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The inevitable march of time figures prominently in several of this year's movies -- it contributes to the pressure to crack the Enigma code as World War II rages in The Imitation Game; it flows through the passing years in Boyhood; and it sets the beat for the drum solos in Whiplash. And that, in turn, meant the film editors behind each of those films had to find different ways to structure the rhythms of their movies.

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William Goldenberg certainly knows a thing or two about how to combine the elements of a true story with a thriller -- he won his first Oscar for 2012's Argo. And in The Imitation Game, which dramatizes how Alan Turing led a team in building a machine to crack Germany's said-to-be-unbreakable Enigma code, he alternates scenes of character development with ones filled with suspense and tension.

In one sequence, a sudden revelation leads the team to race back to work, where they experience the elation of breaking the code -- only to realize they can't immediately act on their discovery. "Originally, there was a longer celebration, followed by a quiet period as they work through the night, but we felt like it was letting the air out of the movie," says Goldenberg. "I came up with this montage of them putting the pins in the maps [as they process the information] so that as soon as Alan has a brief moment of satisfaction, they work through the night and it stops only when they realize they can't tell anybody."

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Throughout the film, Goldenberg also added more cuts to World War II newsreel footage than the filmmaking team -- led by director Morten Tyldum -- originally expected to use in order "to create a ticking clock, so that the audience would always feel the pressure on the group because they were losing the war."

What suspense there is in Boyhood is far more low-key -- what will become of young Mason Jr. as he confronts the small dramas of childhood? -- and director Richard Linklater's longtime editor Sandra Adair faced a different sort of challenge in cutting the coming-of-age story. In the beginning, she says, there "really was no script."

The production set up shop just three to four days a year over a 12-year time period. "I'd come on, basically when they finished shooting, for three to four weeks each year, and I'd edit that year's portion," says Adair. "After we got a few years in, we started to connect one year to the previous years. Going into the last year, we had the whole film together, and the hope was to just attach the last year. That is maybe 90 percent of what happened. We did go back and make some changes. We tightened some of the dialogue scenes. The scene with the teacher in the darkroom got a pretty close examination."

Read more 'Whiplash': Editing Miles Teller's Drumming, 'French Connection' Inspiration

Transitions from one year to the next needed to be quite seamless and often were signaled by subtle signs like a change of haircut for actor Ellar Coltrane. "From the beginning, Richard was very clear that he didn't want the transitions to feel like there was a big delineation in time. I looked for things that could wash by with the cut," says Adair.

In Whiplash, musical time takes over as Miles Teller plays an aspiring drummer. Says editor Tom Cross, the actor "did probably 99 percent of his drumming. Most of the time, Miles was very close to matching sync [with the music track]. On occasion, we had to help him a little with some editing manipulation. For instance, there's a portion of the final performance during which there's an extreme close-up of the drums where the sync was close but not perfect. We couldn't alter the soundtrack and couldn't slow or speed up the music; that would have been immediately obvious. I needed to line the pictures up, manually, for every drum hit. The most precise way was with jump cuts and taking out frames. And that had to be imperceptible."

In the movie's climax, a concert performance at Carnegie Hall, Cross strayed from the original plan, adding in more footage of the lead characters. He says director Damien Chazelle "did storyboards and even crude animatics. I used that to put together the first assembly, but when we looked at the cut, it functioned but didn't have any soul. We needed to inject our characters in there and see their relationship -- their looks at each other, their characters' arc."