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Film Editors Help Stories Find the Right Pace All the Way to Oscar

The best editors are masters of pacing. They can sweep the audience up into an action film with dramatic, bold cuts or gently usher us through more subtle moments with an invisible hand. Regardless of the pace, they take the viewers where the story wants them to go.

This year, film editing nominees “Spotlight” and “The Revenant” used a slower, more deliberate pace to develop their narratives, while “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and “The Big Short” often leaned into a frenetic editing style during battle sequences or climatic moments. And each followed a kind of inner logic dictated by its subject.

As “The Revenant” took audiences along for a tortuous journey, editor Stephen Mirrione had to make decisions about how much he could show before viewers would be overwhelmed. He found that details were important but so was a certain restraint.

It became a challenge during the now famous bear attack sequence to convey the extent of injuries inflicted on Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. Mirrione aimed to put the sequence together to indicate that the bear was defending her territory and cubs without being gratuitously violent.

“Spotlight,” which focused on a group of reporters determined to expose sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, also sought to hold on its serious subject matter while moving the story along. While it followed in the tradition of films like “All the President’s Men,” the pic still had to find its own way to make shots of reporters doing research seem meaningful.

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“The more we stripped things away to follow the beats of the investigation, the more we found audiences becoming engaged,” says editor Tom McArdle. “We noticed viewers started connecting emotionally with the film when the first survivor, Phil Saviano, came into the office. So we went back and tightened everything before that moment.”

In “The Big Short,” Hank Corwin moved between editorial styles that were frantic and unconventional in an effort to give all characters their own pacing and signature. As the storylines of all the main characters came together, the overall editorial style converged into the same note and built toward a tragic and comedic end.

“I remember learning that these guys got sick to their stomachs when they did these deals because they knew it was wrong,” says Corwin. “There’s this anxiety and nervous energy that drives the story and makes it sad and funny at the same time.”

Margaret Sixel, editor on “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was tasked with shoring up a substantial amount of the footage from this return to a beloved franchise. In this case, early screenings showed audiences actually felt there was so much action on screen that it was difficult to follow. So, Sixel set about examining the framing of shots and then making adjustments. In the end it helped bring the fight and chase sequences down to the right length, while preserving their intense pacing.

“If the action scenes were incoherent then the film would have been a disaster,” says Sixel. “I certainly didn’t want it to be a meaningless assault of color and movement.”

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” worked multiple battle sequences as well. For editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey these scenes were not just part of this film, but also part of the history of all the “Star Wars” films. Markey says she was most challenged by the village massacre scene in the beginning of the film since auds were not really sure who the characters are or where the film is going with them.

“We wanted to do something fresh, something new and I think we got there in that sequence,” says Brandon. “These kinds of moments really set the pace for the rest of what follows, too.”

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