Invisible Art/Invisible Artists

For Class #9

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at]

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at]

As usual, areas of this discussion which refer to areas that we are touching on in class are highlighted in yellow.

A Conversation With the Academy Award Nominees for Best Editing

By Neal Romanek for EditorsNet
April 5, 2001

On the morning of Saturday, March 24, a day before the Oscars, the Academy Award nominees for best achievement in editing were not chatting to the press about their chances. They were not locked in bathrooms, practicing their Oscar acceptance speeches. Instead, they were at the historic Egyptian Theatre, passing on their experience and knowledge to a full house of their fellow editors.

"Invisible Art/Visible Artists," sponsored in part by the American Cinema Editors (ACE), was a panel discussion moderated by Donn Cambern, A.C.E., editor of "Easy Rider" and president of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. The two-hour question-and-answer session was devoted to exploring the processes and preferences of each of the nominated editors. In attendance were Dede Allen, A.C.E., editor of "Wonder Boys"; Joe Hutshing, A.C.E., and Mark Livolsi, co-editors of "Almost Famous" (Saar Klein, the third "Almost Famous" editor, was unable to attend); Stephen Mirrione, editor of "Traffic"; Pietro Scalia, A.C.E., editor of "Gladiator"; and Tim Squyres, editor of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

(This handout is an excerpt from a longer interview. The complete article can be found here.)

Much of the morning's discussion centered on the explosion of non-linear editing technology and how it has affected the ways in which editors do their work. Cambern asked the panelists how these tools provide them with different ways of cutting scenes, and what kinds of new pressures they bring about.

Squyres said that he had edited on film and on videotape before making the switch to non-linear editing. Systems like the Avid, he said, give him time to explore: "It doesn't mean you have to spend more time exploring possibilities. It means that in the same amount of time, you explore more possibilities. You get to base your decisions on having actually done it, rather than how you think it's going to work. So much of editing is about little moments -- a little eyebrow move that relates to a head turn -- things that you can't figure out on paper beforehand. You have to sit down and do it, and you can do it on an Avid much better than you can on film, or any other way. At the end of the job, if you've explored more things, you can feel confident that what you've settled on is the best that you can come up with."

Alternatively, Scalia gets a clear sense of what shots will be best for his cut when he screens dailies, his editing sense being based more on feeling than experimentation. He finds digital editing tools to be most useful for making changes easily and for being able to save his cuts and store different versions of a scene.

Scalia's clip of the opening battle scene of "Gladiator" was used as a springboard for discussing the assembly of large-scale battle scenes, and the importance of establishing clear screen direction. Scalia felt that it was necessary to spend time on the set in order to get an understanding of the geography and choreography of the battle. During the editing process, he found that he was lacking an extreme wide shot that would define the locations of the Roman and German armies. Fortunately, a panorama of the entire battlefield was digitally composited from three separate Vistavision elements. Scalia worked on the battle scene first without sound, concentrating on the assembly and rhythm of the images only. Then when a satisfactory structure was arrived at, he polished the cut using a temp music track taken from "The Road Warrior."

Mirrione, also known for his work on "Swingers," uses the Avid's flexibility to allow him to discover lucky accidents, or possibilities he might not have considered when thinking in a logical, linear way. "Every opportunity I can get on an Avid to make a mistake, or to just have something fall into my lap, I take advantage of," he said. He described one such lucky accident on "Traffic," in which a scene ending with a weeping woman was butted against a scene of a bomb-sniffing dog. The juxtaposition of sound and image was striking enough to be included in the final film. Mirrione was sure to add, "A lot of the great transitions in this movie were there in the script."

Allen, whose credits span seven decades and include such classics as "The Hustler," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Little Big Man," spent the bulk of her career cutting on film. The Avid has become her preferred editing equipment, but she does not find that it markedly increases the speed of her cutting. When she was editing on film, she cut on an upright Moviola, using flatbeds mostly as a screening tool or for making changes. Like many of her peers, she had developed fast and efficient ways of handling the film, easily marking up tracks and film to delineate alternate takes or cuts. "I worked so fast with my hands," she remembered. "I had to learn how to do on the Avid what I already did very quickly, and that took some time. Now I love it." Referring to the workload necessitated by her fast-and-furious cutting style, she joked, "Some of my old assistants said the Avid was invented for me."

"The Avid's great advantage is in being able to put together the story," Allen went on to say. "It plays so much better. A lot of new directors have never worked in a three-act structure. They come out of video and they don't really know how to look at a raw cut. It's very hard. The Avid gives me tremendous ability to work with a director in building story and character."

Livolsi, who has worked solely on digital editing systems, expressed admiration and amazement that film editors were able to experiment with dissolves and opticals prior to the Avid. "They must have had to do everything by trial and error," he said.

Cambern related how, in the earlier days of film cutting, before butt splicers, each cut had to be hot spliced, resulting in the loss of frames on either side of the splice. Editors replaced the missing frames with frames of black leader which they kept at the ready on their benches. When the film was viewed, every cut that had been made would be announced on screen by frames of black. Cambern suggested that an editor had to be very careful about choosing where to make cuts, lest multiple black frames in a screening call into question his or her skill.

Allen disagreed. She described her experience working on "Odds Against Tomorrow" for director Robert Wise, in which she screened a scene for him that had been particularly difficult. It was shot through with the tell-tale frames of black leader, indicating that extensive cutting had been done. Wise, far from doubting her ability, turned to her and said, "Good girl! I'm glad to see you worked that scene. That's all that's important. Make it play." Allen went on to say, "Today, you couldn't show a director anything like that. But I was lucky enough to have Robert Wise. He said 'All I care about is that you make it play. I don't care what I tell you to do, if I tell you to do it a certain way and it doesn't work, make it play.'"

Hutshing also began as a film editor, but was eager to adopt the new technology when it arrived. He recalled George Lucas' EditDroid, the first non-linear system for feature films. "It was a joy to work on -- even though the edit decision list at the end was completely corrupt, and the assistants had to eye-match everything and sync up all the sound by phasing it. It was a mess, but it was exciting because it worked." Hutshing expressed love for all digital editing, except for the one digital linear system he used, with fellow panel member Scalia, on Oliver Stone's "JFK." He described it simply: "Analog linear editing: the worst way to edit." Of course, he failed to mention that their work on "JFK" won him and Scalia the Oscar for editing in 1991.

Cambern asked the nominees if they tended to become emotionally involved in the scenes they are cutting and, if so, how it impacts their work. Mirrione insisted that it was essential for him to bring his own experience to the scenes he cuts. "Not that my father was a drug czar, but the dynamic of father and daughter in 'Traffic,' the way they come at each other like that, I could feel myself walking into those characters. It's really important when you're working to let yourself have those kinds of personal feelings, to let that enter into your understanding of what you're doing."

Allen described how a scene in "Little Big Man," in which the character Sunshine is killed, moved her to tears as she put it together. "It absolutely killed me," she said. "I get very emotionally involved with the characters in my scenes. One year at the Academy Awards, they were talking about editing and showing clips, and it was all about how many cuts you can make. For me, it's about how emotionally involved you are."

The nominees also discussed the totality of their involvement with the film throughout its life span. Each editor agreed that their devotion to every part of the process was essential to the success of the picture. Allen said that "in the old days," editors would monitor everything in the post-production process, even going to every theater to check every print and every projector bulb.

Squyres agreed that a certain "obsessiveness" is necessary. In a screening of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at the New York Film Festival, he was on a headset with the projectionist, instructing him to adjust the projector's color temperature for certain scenes in the film. Livolsi had been an assistant editor on several of Woody Allen's films and described how the director's control and attention to detail was absolute -- from the script to the final video transfer, "For me, it's just a natural thing that the editor would be part of the entire process." Multilingual Scalia insists upon supervising the European translations of the films he edits and also goes to Europe to check the quality of printing. "You can never leave anything up to chance, because you care so much."

It would be difficult for one to dream up a more diverse group of editorial styles and tastes than those represented on the panel. Scalia seems an instinctive romantic, Squyres a relentless, trial-and-error perfectionist. Allen was editing before half of the panel was born, and several of the nominees are just beginning their editing careers. Care and genuine love of their art and craft are the traits these artists share.

© 2001, EditorsNet

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Last Modified - September 30, 2008