Honoring the invisible art

Even for those in the profession, choosing 'best' is subjective

Who: American Cinema Editors
Why: Members of ACE, founded in 1950, gather to celebrate the art and science of the editing profession and honor their own in the categories of feature film drama and comedy/musical; one-hour series; half-hour series, miniseries for commercial TV and non-commercial TV; and documentary
When: Nominations are announced Jan. 14; the awards are presented Feb. 20, 5 p.m. cocktails, 6:30 dinner (black tie)
Where: Beverly Hilton International Ballroom

Determining what constitutes best editing on a motion picture is a tricky proposition. Since editing, by definition, is considered the invisible art — a discipline many practitioners feel should not call attention to itself — there are no empirical guidelines. As in most categories of cinematic merit, best is what works for the individual voter.

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Indeed, says Alan Heim, president of the American Cinema Editors and the winner of guild, Oscar, BAFTA and Emmy honors during his career, “the whole thing is almost entirely personal.”

Nevertheless, someone will end up pocketing an ACE Eddie for his or her feature work. Very possibly, that same individual will wind up with an Academy Award as well.

In fact, since 1990, the Eddie has been a reputable Oscar barometer — only twice in 14 years has the feature Eddie and Oscar gone to different projects. (In 1995, “Braveheart’s” Steven Rosenblum won the Eddie while “Apollo 13’s” Mike Hill and Dan Hanley won the Oscar. In 2000, “Gladiator’s” Pietro Scalia won the Eddie while “Traffic’s” Stephen Mirrione captured the Oscar.)

“A well-edited film guides the viewer from place to place without twisting the viewer’s arm, with a good pace and rhythm,” explains Heim. “I personally believe the best editing is the most unobtrusive. Yet, generally, epic or flashy films have a leg up for honors. And smaller films, indie films, are at a disadvantage.

“I’m sometimes even disappointed by the choices we editors ourselves make, because we can also get swept up in the temptation to go for flashier films.”

In terms of Oscars, editing — like many of the crafts categories — tends to ride on the coattails of the picture contenders, witness editing kudos for “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” “Chicago,” “Titanic” and “The English Patient.”

That’s not to say the epics don’t deserve their accolades, many editors stress. When Jamie Selkirk won the Eddie and Oscar last year for “The Return of the King,” one would be hard-pressed to find many editors objecting.

That’s because, as “Kinsey” editor Virginia Katz points out, “they did a beautiful job going through their material and cutting it so that it was fluid and not confusing. From what I’m told, they had so much film to go through, compared to what made it to the screen, plus the effects and all else.”

Then there are the intangibles, according to editor Mark Helfrich (“After the Sunset”). “Who knows what material Jamie had to work with? Peter Jackson provided him with the best possible stuff, and going through all that and doing a good job is time consuming and complicated.”

“That honor (for ‘Lord of the Rings’) was therefore well deserved. But having lots of great, raw material to work with also makes editing easier in some respects. An area that gets very little attention revolves around those projects that were essentially saved by editing — movies that weren’t looking very good at all, yet were turned around by a skilled editor. I think comparing editing jobs really should be influenced by what raw material the editor had to work with.”

Richard Pearson, co-editor on “The Bourne Supremacy,” considers it essentially “impossible to judge the merits of someone’s editing work unless you have the opportunity to read the original script, see all the dailies, and then see the final film. Of course, no one voting for these awards is ever going to get that opportunity. It’s all just about your gut, and there is no right or wrong answer.”

This conundrum was perfectly exemplified, several editors say, by the 2001 thriller “Memento,” edited by Dody Dorn, who was nominated for an Eddie and an Oscar for her efforts. In both cases, though, the winner that year was Pietro Scalia for his work on “Black Hawk Down.”

” ‘Memento’ was a relatively small film, but the editing was exceptional,” says Helfrich. “The overall creative vision of the film was structured backwards, so the creative editing that Dody did was central to telling the story the director intended. That project was totally dependent on editing.”

“Black Hawk Down,” though, was “one long piece of tension,” in the words of Matt Chesse, editor of “Finding Neverland.” “The whole story depended on the editing to maintain that tension. It’s understandable that that movie was honored, but then again, it would have been understandable if ‘Memento’ had won.”

That’s why, at the end of the day, as Heim points out, raw emotional impact will often be a telling factor in what films earn editing honors, no matter who is doing the selecting.

“Editing is the final step of the writing process,” Heim says. “If the story impacts you personally, emotionally, then that means the editing was solid. There is a certain amount of bandwagon stuff and politics, but for many people, it’s all how the editing helps the story hit you emotionally.”

With no “Lord of the Rings” or “Rocky” phenomenon, and a slate of smaller-scale works like “Sideways” and “Finding Neverland” receiving great critical acclaim, there are no definitive faves. Watch what the editors themselves decide at the 55th annual ACE Eddie Awards on Feb. 20 to find an editing betting choice for Oscar night.

Also on that night, James L. Brooks will be presented with the ACE Golden Eddie Filmmaker of the Year, and David Blewitt and Jim Clark will receive career kudos.

(Michael Goldman is senior editor for Millimeter magazine.)