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Spielberg: Maestro at work

ACE Eddie Awards 2013

“I was blown out of my seat,” says editor Edward M. Abroms, of the first time he saw Steven Spielberg’s work, on the 1960s series “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.”

“In the first piece of film that we saw, he started on a close-up of crystal on a chandelier, the camera pulled back and dropped, (showing) all of (actor) Barry Sullivan,” says Abroms, who was one of Spielberg’s first editors, on both the series and on his first feature, “The Sugarland Express” (1974). Spielberg is to get the filmmaker of the year kudo at the ACE Eddie Awards on Saturday. “He designs his scenes, very, very well.”

For Carol Littleton, who was nominated for an Oscar for editing Spielberg’s 1982 film, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” it is that “unbelievable sense of choreography and mise-en-scene for camera,” she says, that distinguishes Spielberg’s impact on cutting. “Consequently, editing (his work) is a total joy.” In “E.T.,” one such scene is when the NASA team arrives. “Spielberg’s using a long lens down the street, and it’s magic hour, so they’re backlit with beautiful golden light, and they themselves looked very alien.”

“That taking over of the house, the sequence was done with an extraordinary economy of shots. When you looked at them, you knew which shot was one, two, three, four. There was a pattern of a dramatic license, and you saw the logic of his direction when you were watching the dailies.”

Choreography is also key to Spielberg’s action scenes, says Steven Kemper, who credits the director-producer with his first big break, on his 1980s series “Amazing Stories.” “The way Steven shoots, he has intent,” says Kemper. “If there’s a shot of a gun coming out a holster, I’m only going to get that little bit.”

And yet, Kemper says, Spielberg’s action sequences “are never just about the action.

“It’s about how the characters are experiencing it. Even cutting away to a simple smirk that Harrison Ford would give (in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), cut at the right time, you got that this character was not easily ruffled. And later on when he was ruffled, you would see that the smirk was gone. It’s those little beats that Spielberg wants and gets.”

According to Martin Cohen, who has served as a post-production exec for Spielberg-directed films, including “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and “Munich” (2005), Spielberg’s success with cuts hinges on his judicious use of visual effects — a skill that Cohen believes was acquired during “Jaws” (1975), when Spielberg had to leave many shots out due to an unreliable mechanical shark. “Your imagination as a viewer gives you more fear than anything that he could have put on screen,” he says. “And I think Steven came to a realization (about that).”

Littleton says as an editor for Spielberg, “you are in good hands, because he is so clear in his own mind of what he needs, and because it’s so clear to those of us who are the first audience. There’s no mystery involved. He can create mystery on the screen.”

ACE Awards 2013
Spielberg: Maestro at work | ACE Eddie noms show revealing splits from Oscars | Larry Silk helped find new grammar for docus | Marks aims to change things for the better

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