'Avatar,' 'District 9' editors took opposite approaches

“Avatar” and “District 9,” both in the editing Oscar race, feature similar themes — a minor functionary is sent to move oppressed aliens, joins their cause, finds his inner hero and ultimately becomes one of them — but James Cameron’s dreamlike epic stands in sharp contrast to the neorealistic, gritty vibe of Neill Blomkamp’s satire.

“Avatar” editors Steve Rivkin and John Refoua explain that Cameron wanted to keep viewers in the world he created and avoid confusion during action sequences. That meant avoiding quick cuts or techniques that would pull the audience out of the movie.

Rivkin and Refoua believe the shots still contain a dynamic energy without that approach.

“Jim (Cameron) is great about having a lot of camera movement so that you don’t feel like things are moving slowly,” Rivkin says. “There’s a real sense of a lot of action going on in the scenes, but you’re not doing a lot of jump cuts, and you stay with the visual images that have been established, so you stay with the characters and what’s happening to them.”

The aesthetic of “District 9″ is nearly the complete opposite, explains the film’s editor, Julian Clarke. The filmmakers envisioned keeping the audience off-balance with a jarring array of differing images so they would feel tension and fear as the main character went through one crisis after another.

Clarke initially found Blomkamp’s vision counterintuitive to the well-lit, balanced, composed shots he normally seeks as an editor. But he quickly developed a shorthand with the helmer.

“We had a multimedia collision of styles that incorporated security-camera footage, news footage, documentary-style footage, cinema verite and shaky camera movement and improvisation from the actors,” Clarke says. “With that hard midday light on top of that, we almost had an anti-aesthetic happening, and that’s what Neill (Blomkamp) wanted.”

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