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Film Editors Take Cues from Music, Characters and Audience Reaction

Workers in the editing room cut films for maximum effect

While artisans come together to make a film, it’s up to the editorial department to bring together everything they create into a narrative that looks like it was always meant to be seen a certain way. And more often than not, editors call on a kind of gut instinct as much as the script to tell them when something feels right.

Sometimes that can be something as simple as a musical cue, as was the case for Joe Walker, editor of Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” To some extent, Walker was informed by the iconic score of the original “Blade Runner,” which is entrenched in cinema history. When Agent K (Ryan Gosling) leans back on some stairs after being wounded toward the end of the film, we hear notes from original score that played in the first film when Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) dies.

“There was a nod to the first film while we were making our own movie with our own story and characters that stand on their own,” says Walker. “And that score is very beautiful.”

As Sidney Wolinsky edited Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” he also worked with a haunting score and a type of character with a long movie history — an aquatic creature that recalls many of the monster films of the ’50s and ’60s.

But this monster wasn’t just a heavily costumed actor that pops up from behind the scenery to elicit a scream or a shock. “We were making him a romantic leading man, which is different than how this character was in the past, but we revealed him in a way that creates fear at first,” Wolinsky says. “First you see just a hand, then the whole body, but soon he’s falling in love.”

With battle films such as Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” or superhero epics like Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” editors have to get a sense of how much action an audience can take before they back off and give them a break before resuming the gore. Both of these films delve into warfare and all its deadly consequences.

For “Dunkirk,” the lives of ordinary people are examined as history sweeps them up in its own narrative and the editing takes you along with them. “There was a lot of discussion about how much the audience could take of these battle scenes,” says “Dunkirk” editor Lee Smith, a longtime Nolan collaborator. “In the early screenings there was a woman in the audience who I wasn’t sure was going to make it through the movie. We knew we had to find the right rhythm so we could take the audience to the edge of not being able to handle any more of it, then back off, then start at it again.”

Valerio Bonelli, editor of Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” faced similar pacing challenges with the story of Winston Churchill’s struggles when he became prime minister of the U.K. As Nazi Germany marches across Western Europe, Churchill must decide what to do. It’s a moment in history that had to hold the viewers.

“We had a ticking clock,” Bonelli says. “We didn’t want this to only be a historical drama, we wanted it to be a thriller where you feel like you don’t know what’s coming next and you feel the time running out for Churchill to do something — that way the audience would feel the story more.”

Editors can also pace a film for a sense of intimacy and tension, as in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” pictured above, which explores a strange strategy for saving the earth’s resources. After scientists pioneer a way to reduce adult humans to around 5 inches in height, many people opt to be “downsized” and live in communities for the shrunken folk.

“The scene where the downsizing happens is probably my favorite,” says editor Kevin Tent. “You see all these people come in and get prepared, then they go through the process. As an editor you’re seeing the acting, the costumes, the production design and everything all come together to make something wonderful. Maybe that’s the best thing about being an editor.”

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