Looking For Mr. GoodEditor

16 08 2010

Every year, around this time, I get a booklet from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), called “Rules”.  For those of you who wonder just what that AMPAS thing is, let me tell you that it’s the organization that hands out the Oscars every year, and I’ve been a member of the Music Branch ever since I was a music editor lo those many years ago.

Anyway, AMPAS is a rather large and rules-ridden organization that bends over backwards to be fair in its judging of the Academy Awards (which, by the way, is only a small part of what it does — though that is the most income producing part).  My guess is that has something to do with the organization’s history as an invention of the studios. But, now, the main thing that determines which films get nominated for Oscars is usually the result of its members personal tastes.  Nothing more.

[As an aside, I’m thoroughly amused when film critics, bloggers or general conspiracy nuts, tend to create theories about just why certain movies did well or did poorly around the Oscar nominations. I’m IN the organization, and if there is a conspiracy to award certain films awards, I’ve never gotten the memo.]

In order to assure whatever level of impartiality you can get in what is essentially a vote on your own personal tastes, the Academy annually issues this thick (4o page) rulebook.  The rules are relatively innocuous.  Here is one from “Rule Thirteen, Special Rules for the Film Editing Award”:

In accordance with Rule Two Paragraph 5, only film editors who hold principal position credit(s) shall be considered eligible for the Film Editing award.

Pretty controversial, eh?

But this raises the real question for us as to just what constitutes best film editing.

Note that the award is called “Best Film Editing” not “Best Film Editor.”  That’s a crucial difference for me. Editing is truly collaborative, so it’s not really possible to say who made the editorial decisions that result in the film that we see. The editor/s accept this award as representatives for the film’s editing, but there is no editor is the world who would claim that they do all of the decision-making, much though some would want to. So, every year the Editing Branch gets to nominate the five films that they think are best edited, regardless of who edited them. And then the rest of us vote on them.

But how do we choose the films that we think are the best edited?

I’ve long felt that the only real way to give the award would be to make every voter watch all of the dailies* for the film. Honestly, if someone doesn’t know that all we had to work with for a scene were two master shots, how can they understand why we made the choices we did.

Obviously, that’s neither possible nor desirable. Ultimately, it is only the end result that matters.

So, what is “Best Editing”?  In my opinion, it revolves around the following four points, presented here in no particular order:

  • Do we understand and get involved with the story?
  • Do we understand and get involved with the characters?
  • Do we understand and get involved with the ways in which the characters and the story change as the film moves along?
  • Is the film told in the best possible way for its story and its characters?

That’s it.  Seems simple, right? Of course, it’s not. The last point is impossible to know but that is where the individual judgement comes in.  A few years, I loved THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, an intelligently shaped story about a man’s struggle to communicate after a devastating stroke.

Many of my friends felt that it was overly maudlin and a depressing topic.

So, we’re all operating from our own prejudices here. But I felt that, given its subject matter, the film created wonderful ways of reaching inside the lead character and letting the audience understand and get involved in his plight. Its filmmaking changed from claustrophic to more expansive as his world expanded, so it felt that it was told in “the right way.” And I got inside his mind and his story.

Perfect (for me).

Filmmaking is all about shaping story and character (I better believe that — that’s what my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT is all about, how to shape storytelling across all facets of the filmmaking crafts). Film editing is a crucial component in that. So, when I sit down with my final ballot for the Oscars every year, those four questions always rise to the top. And, by the way, they are also four of the five questions that I constantly ask myself as I edit. The first one is “What is this story about?”

But that is another story entirely.  And another post.


* Dailes, also called “rushes,” is the term for all of the footage that was shot during the production phase of the filmmaking process.

(This post is adapted from an earlier post on another blog)



3 responses to “Looking For Mr. GoodEditor”

17 08 2010
Sex Mahoney (10:41:58) :

Despite having studied many different aspect of film, it wasn’t until you asked the question ‘What is “Best Editing”?’ that I gave the question any serious thought.

As with many other aspects of film, an individual method of production works best when it seamlessly fits with the rest of the creation. That is, good editing is editing that doesn’t call attention to itself. But, and i’m reaching back very far into the protoplasm of my film criticism knowledge here, the core component of cinematic edits is juxtaposition or comparison, which may not derive from editing alone. So that criteria, which can be used to holistically evaluate a film, goes out the window when it comes to a specific production process, in this case editing. It is impossible to remove the process from the whole therefore the main role of editing is indistinguishable from that of writing or acting or even spooling cable.

Looking at a list of past Academy Awards nominees, it seems that the “Best Picture” films were also well represented in the “Best Editing” category (with the notable exception of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which I’ll watch later today). Is “Best Editing” simply a corollary to “Best Picture?” You would hope that the best picture also be proficiently edited, but it is Hollywood after all, and there is no conspiracy in voting save the prejudices Academy voters operate under.

The only way to truly evaluate editing would then be an examination of purpose and objective through the other aspects of production. But that results in a similar dead end, since it is impossible to tell where the editor stops and everything else begins.

The pat answer: “Best Editing” is the kind that, if you do it right, seems like you did nothing at all.

The joke answer: “Best Editing” is the cinematic equivalent of a mohel. You have to know when and what to cut.

The Real Answer: “Best Editing” is…

20 08 2010
5 Weekly Filmmaking Links | SynapticLight (09:54:51) :

[…] Looking For Mr. GoodEditor : Interesting to read about the rules for Film the Editing Award at the Academy Awards. And interesting that there is a distinction between “Best Film Editing” not “Best Film Editor.” . By the way only film editing is considered – how long will that last. […]

21 08 2010
A Sound And Film Editor Considers, "What Is Best Editing?" « Movie City News (01:20:50) :

[…] A Sound And Film Editor Considers, “What Is Best Editing?” […]

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