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Florida State Classmates Helped Make Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Shine

Working on “Moonlight” felt like a college reunion for editor Joi McMillon. The film’s writer and director, Barry Jenkins, was her classmate at Florida State University, as were producer Adele Romanski, DP James Laxton, and co-editor Nat Sanders. They had all worked on each other’s projects.

After graduation, McMillon continued to work with Jenkins on commercials and his 2011 short “Chlorophyl.” Through their collaboration, they developed a shorthand that proved especially valuable when she and Sanders cut “Moonlight.”

“We’ve known Barry for a really long time,” says McMillon. “We know his aesthetic and how he likes to approach cinema. We had a sense of how he was trying to tell this story.”

Jenkins’ style involves defining nuanced shots and camera moves that, along with cast performances, highlight specific mental and emotional states. The helmer works without a storyboard, allowing details of location to dictate the type of shots — a practice that immerses viewers in the story. One example: the rotating shot of the street corner that opens the movie.

Under Jenkins’ direction, Laxton and his team captured a “oner,” or key shot, with a limited amount of safety coverage. As the editors explored the best ways to shape the scenes, specifically those with multi-character interaction, they paid equal attention to the performances, camera movements, and silences to determine the desired tone.

McMillon and Sanders shared the workload by splitting up the movie’s three distinct acts. Sanders tackled the coming-of-age acts one and two; McMillon wrangled the complex adult sequences in act three. While working on dedicated scenes allowed them to manage their timeline, the two editors regularly shared advice and suggestions on all scenes throughout the process. (Their editing suite was a small office with two computers set up on opposite sides of the room.)

Careful observation guided McMillon through some challenging edits — especially in sequences where the character, Black, has a tense reunion with former best friend, Kevin. During a phone call that reconnects the two, McMillon purposely manipulated the information presented to the audience, extending the camera’s slow reveal and capturing awkward silences and vocal stutters to heighten each man’s nervousness.

“We treated it as if Black was trying to piece together what grown-up Kevin looked like,” McMillon says. “We played with whatever information we gave to the audience and what we decided to take away.”

McMillon also used her skillful eye to tackle the challenge of editing the two men’s reunion at a diner. She first experimented with cutting between them. Upon reviewing the clips, she noticed a place where Black takes several beats before slightly glancing at Kevin … and realized that playing with the silence, and holding on a shot at a point when the audience was anxious for that “what comes next?” moment, would make the perfect cut.

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