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Oscar Editing Nominees Reveal Their Cutting Edge

Ask people to highlight great film editing and they’ll often point to a blockbuster with fast cuts set against a big action backdrop. But this year the list of Academy Award nominees in this category are mostly indie films, with one notable exception, that run at their own unique pace.

“Baby Driver” (Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss), “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (Jon Gregory), “The Shape of Water” (Sidney Wolinsky) and “I, Tonya” (Tatiana S. Riegel) are all lower-budget, character-driven stories. Only “Dunkirk” (Lee Smith) focuses on a specific historic event, drawing the audience into a WWII evacuation.

“Baby Driver” and “I, Tonya” both followed action-oriented characters: the first centered on a professional driver and the latter focused on an ice skater. They balanced their quieter moments with some of the most challenging editing tasks imaginable. Amos and Machliss had to time their driving sequences to the music listened to by the main character on headphones, and Riegel had to integrate performances by Margot Robbie, a stunt double and visual-effects work to cut together their ice skating big scenes.

“You’re trying to balance the amazing performance by Margot Robbie with showing these turns and spins that made Tonya Harding who she was as a skater,” Riegel says. “When Tonya would skate you would see on her face exactly how she felt about her performance.”

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water” both allowed longer cuts to reveal their characters and amplify their stories. Wolinsky, who talked with helmer Guillermo del Toro as the project was coming together, knew the story would closely follow the lives of a janitor and her friends. Gregory was also prepared to focus on performances after reading the script.

“You know, you look at Frances McDormand’s face in these scenes and you don’t want to cut away because she’s telling you everything you need to know,” says Gregory. “Your job as an editor there is to know that you have it and stay with the actors.”

Whether the films were small or big budget, editors are becoming more embedded with the film crew during every stage of production. Helmers often bring them on as early as pre-production to consult so they can avoid costly reshoots later and so they can hand off shots to the visual-effects department as early as possible.

Machliss was on set and had his editing equipment strapped into a vehicle so he could see if the incoming footage was cutting together the right way on “Baby Driver.” It was the only way for him to be sure he could time the action to the music in post. Riegel was consulting with the visual-effects department on “I, Tonya” so that they were sure face replacements for the skating sequences looked right. And Smith came onto “Dunkirk” early to talk with helmer Christopher Nolan about land and battle sequences since reshooting them could prove nearly impossible.

“Chris [Nolan] is meticulous in everything he does, and it’s part of what makes him a great filmmaker, so he wanted me there to help so we knew we had everything we needed and that everything would cut together the way he planned, the way he imagined,” says Smith. “It means as an editor you’re now getting dirty in the trenches with the crew. I like it because you can work more closely with them so all that work will be part of the story you put together later.”

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