Actors’ Artistry Proves To Be Film Editors’ Toughest Test

It’s no coincidence that nominations for acting and film editing overlap.

Film Editing Oscar Nominees
Oliver Munday

When considering this year’s Oscar nominees for film editing, it bears keeping in mind that the precise nature of that achievement is never an easy or obvious one to gauge, or even to discuss. The editor’s alchemy is a largely invisible one, an art by subtraction — dependent on reams of footage we never see, driven as much by emotional impact as by timing and rhythm, and usually aimed at achieving the sort of visual seamlessness that can too easily be taken for granted. The better it is, so the conventional wisdom goes, the less you notice.

SEE ALSO: Visual Effects, Sound and Editing Oscar Nominees: Four Memorable Scenes

Ironically, this may partly account for why Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione’s inventive work on “Birdman,” with its cunningly achieved illusion of having been shot in one long, wound up omitted from this year’s nominations. Even so, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s technical tour de force offers a useful reminder that just because a picture doesn’t look edited doesn’t mean that it wasn’t. As it happens, Crise and Mirrione were Oscar-nominated for Inarritu’s much more flashily edited 2006 picture, “Babel” — a worthy recognition, to be sure, though more for the strength of that film’s performances and its long-arc emotional progression than for its convulsive leaps through time and space, nearly all of which were set forth in Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay.

Something similar could be said of Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” which opens with perhaps its showiest cut — from the tense image of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle on an Iraq rooftop to the sight of a young Kyle hunting with his father decades earlier — a deliberately jarring temporal transition that comes straight from Jason Hall’s otherwise doggedly linear script. The true measure of editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach’s achievement is a subtler one, evident in the coherence of Bradley Cooper’s lead performance, the energy and clarity of the action scenes, and the slow, steady accretion of moments into a full-bodied (if far from comprehensive) portrait of one man’s harrowing existence.

Another life-spanning portrait of an exceptional individual, “The Imitation Game” accesses Alan Turing’s formative moments through a more intricate network of flashbacks, and editor William Goldenberg renders the transitions with the sort of crisp, polished ease that defines Morten Tyldum’s picture as a whole. But beyond the occasional blips of historical newsreel footage and the process-driven montages, Goldenberg’s work is perhaps best appreciated in the assembly of the film’s outstanding lead performance; we’ll never know exactly how many different versions of Benedict Cumberbatch’s icy stare the editor had to work with, but the role’s emotional impact, despite its tightly constricted range, largely speaks for itself.

As many a cutting-room veteran will tell you, the ability to shape a performance presents perhaps the truest test of a film editor’s skill. As it happens, four of this year’s five editing nominees also received nominations for acting — and the one that didn’t, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” arguably should have for Ralph Fiennes’ bravura display of controlled comic fireworks. Remarkably, given Wes Anderson’s obsessive attention to matters of timing and rhythm (crucial for an ensemble farce like this to work), this is the first of the director’s pictures to earn recognition in this category, and if ever there was a need for proof that great editing is allowed to call attention to itself, Barney Pilling’s work offers it in spades.

The style here is presentational rather than immersive, full of frequent shot-reverse-shot transitions between perfectly symmetrical frames, and often employing playful shifts in perspective that call attention to the candied-diorama artifice of the film’s world. Anderson, who works out his compositions and camera movements beforehand, isn’t a director who offers much breathing room; even still, Pilling’s shot selection process, in search of the cleanest blocking, the best line deliveries and the strongest comic interplay between actors, must have been killer.

Of all the nominees, Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” is the most narrowly focused, and the most tightly circumscribed in terms of time and space; a few peripheral characters aside, it’s effectively a two-hander, which sets a logical back-and-forth pattern for Tom Cross’ editing scheme. The most memorable sequences in “Whiplash” consist of simple yet perfectly timed reversals between J.K. Simmons’ barking orchestra leader and Miles Teller’s desperate-to-please drummer, in which the actors’ gestures often dictate the exact placement of each cut. At the same time, Cross’ cutting derives terrific energy from the natural percussion supplied by the jazz music with which it works so inextricably in concert.

By contrast, the most expansive film of the bunch is “Boyhood,” and if there’s a contender this year that confounds most traditional ideas of editing a movie, it’s this one. Whereas most editors work from the template of a finished script, Sandra Adair was no more aware of which direction the 12-year project would take than Richard Linklater was, allowing her an unprecedented level of freedom to experiment while considerably raising the degree of difficulty.

The editorial virtues of “Boyhood” are plain to see — namely, the absorbing narrative flow and performances that feel cohesive from start to finish — but they’re especially remarkable when you consider the additional variables and levels of uncertainty introduced by a real-time experiment. All of which makes the modesty of Adair’s approach — especially the tactful, almost imperceptible transitions from one year to the next — all the more becoming. Great editing isn’t always invisible editing, but in this case the two are one and the same.