Film Editors Master Time to Shape Their Stories

One of this year's films appears to be a single long take, another tells a story that extends over 12 years

A film editor’s primary task is to shape time itself.

In that respect, two of this year’s films — “Birdman” and “Boyhood” (pictured) — presented some of the greatest challenges ever faced by this group of artisans. One story was told in what appeared to be a kinetic and continuous single take while the other unfolded over 12 years.

While most editors work with the benefit of a final script or collect footage in a short period of time as they put together a cut of a film, Sandra Adair had neither. As Richard Linklater’s editor since “Dazed and Confused” in 1993, Adair knew the helmer’s process, but they’d never done anything quite like “Boyhood,” which was shot in pieces over its 12-year span.

“I’d come in each year and take about a month to put together the material,” says Adair of the film that follows the life of a boy as he ages from 6 to 18. “It was an exercise in restraint to not try to anticipate or manipulate, so I looked for moments that moved me, that had some realness to them.”

Adair also had serious technological hurdles. She began editing on an Apple Final Cut Pro system but eventually moved to an Avid Media Composer because the filmmakers felt it was more reliable for a long-term project. Adair’s assistant, Mike Saenz, organized much of the work behind the scenes.

“Just to be able to find any single piece of film was work,” Adair says.

While Adair had to ease back and allow “Boyhood” to develop, Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise, the editors of “Birdman,” worked with helmer Alejandro G. Inarritu to make the bulk of their plot and camera decisions ahead of the shooting.

Inarritu’s decision to make the film appear as though it was all shot in one take meant the cuts had to be orchestrated and the camera moves were planned in detail to give the editors what they needed. It also left the editors with fewer options in post.

“Everyone is more exposed this way,” says Mirrione. “The actors, the director, the two of us as editors, we’re all out there because we don’t have the opportunity to switch perspectives and focus on a different actor or a different part of a scene when we’re editing, so everyone has to be working at their highest level all the time.”

With a short 29-day shoot on the schedule, the editors asked Inarritu to film the rehearsals so they could put a rough cut together and troubleshoot early on in pre-production. From there Crise, Mirrione and Inarritu made tweaks that they hoped would keep errors at a minimum.

“So many things could have gone wrong with a project like this and there wouldn’t have been a way to fix in post, really,” says Crise. “I felt like I was going down a toboggan run and I just had to focus on the movie as a whole.”

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