Editors Vying for Oscar Glory Tell Stories Through Skillful Cutting

Working in the darkness of the editing suite, these artists know how to expose inner lives and advance the action

Jackie Movie
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

When a virtuoso film editor crafts a scene just so, pulling together shots that at first might have seemed out of place, all the audience knows is that it is immersed in a story. Great editing is making all the segments on the screen seem like they were naturally meant to go together.

It’s no easy feat to come up with that kind of a cut. Some of the most famous edits have been the results of a happy accident that brought certain visuals and audio together in the editing room. Most of the time, editors work through their footage until the cut feels right to them.

For Joe Walker, editor on “Arrival,” there’s a particular method he tends to use to create tension, enhance storytelling and maximize character development. It’s not something he takes lightly.

“Time is the editor’s super power,” Walker says. “It’s my obsession because the way you use time in a film will let you accomplish many things, from taking great scenes and making them better or making something that’s not quite there yet work for the film.”

In “Arrival,” Walker needed to slowly reveal the relationship between Amy Adams’ character and aliens who appear in a spacecraft that hovers above the ground. It was up to him to reveal the right elements and hold back information that would deflate the impact of the story overall.

“The right detail at the right moment is what you want,” he says. “It’s how you create tension and how you let the audience have their reactions to what they’re seeing.”

Sebastian Sepulveda also used time as his super power when editing “Jackie,” which follows the life of the young first lady Jackie Kennedy as she struggles with the death of her husband and remembers key moments of her life in flashbacks. These moments carry the inner life of the character.

In putting them together, Sepulveda was aware flashbacks need to be handled carefully and that the inner life or memory has its own kind of logic.

“When you or I remember our past, sometimes it’s not in order, sometimes it’s because of something we see or smell, we’re not in control of it,” says Sepulveda. “So if you saw someone’s memories playing, it would not make sense, but in the movie it has to make sense somehow.”

Without careful decisions in the editing room, flashbacks can become clichéd and sequences meant to look into the mind of a character could come off as a random series of images that leave the audience confused. “That is the art,” says Sepulveda. “An editor can take images that seem crazy, confusing and play them together so the audience has an emotion or feeling they didn’t have before.”

Manchester by the Sea,” the latest by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, also relied heavily on flashbacks to tell the story of a character holding in secrets that tortured him over the long haul. Editor Jen Lame had to handle them in a way that allows the audience to discover Casey Affleck’s backstory at just the right time.

“I knew [Lonergan] was making this movie and I read lots of drafts of the script, because I really wanted to work on this movie,” says Lame. “By the time we talked I knew scenes he’d cut from the story and could offer him ideas about how to bring everything together based on what had already been written at different points.”

Lame also realized simple cuts and storytelling would allow Affleck’s complex character to develop more easily for the audience. There was already so much happening with him, it would almost be too much to see jarring edits as the heavy inner life of Affleck’s character played out on screen.

“You could really hurt the impact of the amazing performance if you throw too much at the audience visually,” says Lame. “Sometimes as an editor, you have to be conservative not to take away from something that’s already amazing.”

Tim Squyres, who has worked with helmer Ang Lee for more than a decade, faced down immense technical challenges on “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” to keep the project moving forward and cut together in the emotional evocative way Lee wanted it to be seen.

While Lee’s aim was to make a film that would be shown at visually stunning 120 frames-per-second, 4K, and 3D, Squyres didn’t have the tools to edit in that format so he had to focus on getting as close to that mark as possible in order to be sure that the edit decisions would play the right way in the optimized format and at a lower resolution as well.

“I needed to cut in 3D at the highest frame rate as possible and that turned out to be 60 frames per second,” says Squyres. “There wasn’t any hardware to support working at 120 frames so it had to be 60, and we had to invent out own way of working.”