Eye on the Oscars: Vfx, Sound & Editing

This awards season, several contenders clock in with long running times: “The Tree of Life” is 139 minutes; “The Help” is 146 minutes, and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is a full 158 minutes.

Editors are usually charged with keeping things moving along, so the audience never gets restless in its seat — and so exhibitors can get in as many playtimes a day as possible. Nowadays that typically means studio releases of around 100 minutes.

But editors have plenty of ways to keep directors and audiences happy as running times extend well past two hours.

Mark Yoshikawa, who was one of five editors for Terrence Malick’s lyrical, highly stylized “The Tree of Life,” says Malick and the editorial team “wanted to make as long of a movie as we could, that was about everything,” says Yoshikawa.

He adds “(Malick’s) big thing was not wanting to be shown the story, he wants it to feel like you’re creating the story yourself.” That’s reflected in the cutting.

“In the first section, the grief section, since you’re just getting to know the characters, we were trying to keep it quiet, like a silent film in a way, where you’re just trying to get everything out of their expressions.” That helps get the audience used to the idea they’re not watching “a normal film,” he says. Other sections have their own styles: the “urban” section has a frenetic pace, and the birth section has a “very musical-based, very fragmentary” pace.

Though the picture is unconventional and sometimes abstract, “The dinner-table scenes were nice little islands in the river, where you had to sit there and listen to the dad (Brad Pitt),” Yoshikawa says. “They were little bits to (help the audience) realize that this (film) is not going to be one long stream of consciousness, and every once in a while you’ll be able to catch up and settle.”

Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter who edited David Fincher’s thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” were especially careful with pacing early and late in the film.

Near the start they tinkered with the order of scenes as they intercut the stories of cyber-investigator Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) and reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who don’t team up until well into the picture. Says Baxter: “We intercut those characters so that the scenes that played next to each other gave promise to the eventual union of them.”

The editors also shortened Salander’s reaction times. “It worked better for her,” says Baxter. “She operated on a higher (mental) level, so when we made her extremely snappy, actually not perfect continuity, just blithely stepping ahead of herself, that was the sweet spot for her. That in and of itself saved time.”

To achieve Fincher’s target run-time of nearly two hours and 40 minutes, the editors worked with him to beat the clock without sacrificing content. Wall says: “You have to test the boundaries of how lean you can make it in order to know how lean you should be.” According to Baxter, Fincher served as the barometer while beating the drum to keep it as efficient as possible.

For Tate Taylor’s Civil Rights-era picture “The Help,”editor Hughes Winborne wanted to achieve a rhythm that would keep audiences rapt through two hours and 26 minutes oscillating between humor and tragedy.

“This movie flows like a wide and beautiful river,” Winborne says. “It’s languid. But once you get into it, it will carry you along.”

Winborne cut in supblots to keep the picture from dragging. “The biggest thing we did was restructuring, so as not to not jar people too much,” he said.

There was little pressure to meet a specific run-time, he says, but after the first cut came in at more than three hours, Winborne and Taylor dove in and started trimming. “Often, it was one of us playing the devil’s advocate, arguing and trying to figure out how we’re going to deal with the cut.”

Yet, discussion didn’t always quell the pain of shortening a long movie. “Editors and directors talk about killing their babies,” Winborne adds. “There were so many babies killed on this film.”

Eye on the Oscars: VFX, Sound & Editing

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