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Technology Has Made Editing More Accessible but It Still Takes Talent

Stephan James as Fonny and Brian
Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture

Over the past decades, editors have felt the impact of dramatic technological changes that have upended so much of what they used to do in the past. But after years of pushing the tools, some of the editors on this year’s most lauded films find themselves in the midst of a sea change — yet again.

As digital production was introduced, shooting costs declined and sometimes that meant excessive amounts of coverage. Editors were faced with sorting through it all to find the stories. But now, some filmmakers are leaning toward more focused shooting and less voluminous stockpiles of material.

Films that have been praised for their editing this year represent a broad range of storytelling styles, including “First Man,” “Black Panther,” “Roma,” “A Star Is Born,” “The Favourite,” “Widows,” “Mary, Queen of Scots,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Vox Lux” and “Vice.”

One key to approaching the editor’s art is to be flexible. “What I’ve learned over time is that I should never walk into a project with preconceptions,” says “Vice” editor Hank Corwin. “Initially I was attracted to the idea of showing the vastness of America, using stock footage and period music. The fantastic performances disabused us of those notions. We culled out excess in order to give our characters room to live. The space between some of the words became as important as the words themselves. The film wouldn’t accept embellishment and artifice. The movie itself dictated the cutting style and structure.”

While such films as “Black Panther” and “First Man” needed to balance their epic backdrops and visual effects with the journey of a character, indie titles including “Vox Lux,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “The Favourite” and “Mary, Queen of Scots” also faced storytelling challenges as they brought compelling visuals into personal tales that don’t always stick to strict genres.

Matt Hannam, editor on “Vox Lux” and “Wildlife,” says today’s filmmakers are better prepared than in the past. “I can tell when I sit down with a director sometimes that they’ve thought about how the editing will be done and I think that’s because editing software is now something that everyone can get and use,” says Hannam. “When there was this change to digital there was a tendency to just shoot and shoot and shoot, but now there’s a turning away from that because we’re looking more at what we really need to tell the story.”

Of course, the technology can still cut both ways.

“Sometimes you feel you have to try things many ways because it’s possible with what we have now,” says Chris Dickens, editor of “Mary Queen of Scots.” “But what hasn’t changed is that you know how it feels when something is working and you can more easily work at it until you get it where it needs to be. I’m telling the story of these two women and all the men around them with their own motivations, and I know when the emotion is there and the audience will feel it.”

For Yorgos Mavropsaridis, editor of “The Favourite,” that has meant developing a style he called “non-editing editing” or “montage” for his current project. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle and it all has to come together for us,” says Mavropsaridis. “Everything must fall into place. We developed this way of editing with montages when we did ‘The Lobster.’”

Barry Alexander Brown, editor of “BlacKkKlansman,” found himself in the middle of a project that was part history, part inspiration and mixed multiple genres in way that was unique to helmer Spike Lee. As longtime collaborators, Brown and Lee have developed their own way of working together.

“We have a shorthand and I think what helps is that even though Spike wrote this script he’s able to watch the scenes and say, ‘Why is that in there?’” says Brown. “As an editor you have to be able to talk like that with a director. That kind of relationship is important because then you can take chances like opening with Alec Baldwin’s voice. I had the audio of him asking if he was saying things the right way and I thought it would be perfect to show the artifice and use the entire thing as one of those sorts of happy discoveries you make when working with the material to give the audience that kind of insight.”

(Pictured above: Stephan James, left, and Brian Tyree Henry in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk”)