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Know Your Oscar Nominees: Film Editors

Looks like it’s part III of our technical guide to the Oscars, with ground to cover even after our breakdowns of the sound mixing and editing category and costume designers. This time around, we’re moving into post-production and looking deep beyond the camera to the race for Best Film Editing, a particularly cutthroat category that pits four Best Picture noms and the year’s highest grossing film against one another. But before we dive into the best 2015 had to offer, let’s take a look at just how the nominees are chosen, and what the criteria is used for selecting the best of the best.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that a film is made three times: once through a script, once on set, and finally in the edit room: and considering how much a film’s editing contributes to the general look and tone of a film, it’s hard to disagree. It’s unsurprising then that the Academy Award for Film Editing is surprisingly correlative with the Best Picture nominations. For the past 33 years each Best Picture winner also received a Film Editing nomination, but while the categories often have a striking amount in common, their nomination process is subtly different. In charge of deciding the nominees are the voting members of the Editing Branch of the Academy (adding up to a relatively small 220 members), who are tasked with choosing five titles to be selected as nominees. After the nominees are selected, the whole of the Academy is able to choose the winner.

But how do they choose? Officially, the criteria comes down to simply selecting the “Best Film Editing,” but eight time Oscar winning editor Michael Kahn has a slightly more specific set of requirements: “When you see something that is well edited, you don’t know if the editor did it from his own devices or if he sat with the director who told him exactly what to do… If it is a good film and it works well, you know the editor had a lot to do with making it happen.” And while a film’s general quality is a notoriously subjective topic, this year’s five nominees certainly fit Kahn’s description. Up for the win is Margaret Sixel, editor of Mad Max: Fury Road, Hank Corwin, editor of The Big Short, Tom McArdle, the editor of Spotlight, Stephen Mirrione, editor of The Revenant and Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, editors of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So far, Hank Corwin’s immensely quirky work on Adam McKay’s breakout comedy The Big Short is looking poised for a well-deserved win alongside Margaret Sixel, whose work on George Miller’s Mad Max made it one of the most watchable action films of the decade.  Both of the editors took home the often predictive “Eddie Award” at the American Cinema Editor Awards in January. Let's take a deeper look at our five nominees.

For a man who made his name working with beloved auteurs like Terrence Malick and Oliver Stone, the prospect of a collaboration with one of comedy’s golden children responsible for a specific kind of low-brow comedy exemplified in films like Step Brothers and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, was a risky one to say the least. But for editor Hank Corwin, the chance paid off. The Big Short, which appeared quietly near the end of 2015, has been showered with praise for its effervescent takedown of the financial crisis of 2008. Featuring a sizable ensemble cast and boasting a slick combination of quick wit, big brains and Margot Robbie explaining economics in a bubble bath, The Big Short is notable largely for its sense of controlled chaos, a quality largely bolstered by Hank Corwin’s shrewd editorial supervision.

Pulling both from his considerable experience and a grab bag of pop culture detritus, Corwin’s rebellious spirit helped to turn Adam McKay’s biting script and unique shooting style into a towering, if magnificent, oddity. “I wanted to reflect the anxiety, the tension of the characters and the situation,” Corwin told Variety. “ I would cut a scene and I would get the excitement that an editor or somebody deeply immersed gets. I knew there was something really special about this film.” The Big Short has no shortage of nerves, and is filled with cuts that often seem to have a mind of their own. Corwin gleefully cuts off lines of dialogue, slides into a brief moment of a Britney Spears press junket and then casually alights back to the streets of New York City in what can seem like one fell swoop. “My biggest challenge initially was to differentiate who these people were, so I gave each grouping its own editorial signature.” Christian Bale’s whip-smart and anti-social brainiac gave Corwin some of his biggest visual inspiration. “In my first cut, I had synapses, I had blood cells, knowing I would take them out, just to get me in the right frame of mind.” Eschewing more traditional editing in favor of playing into McKay’s sense of humor and style, Corwin also included a significant amount of stock footage, an idea he took to McKay in post-production that helped to flesh out the world of the film outside of the confines of Wall Street.

Chances of Winning: It’s no secret that The Big Short is the most creatively edited choice in the category, and the Academy’s decision to honor Whiplash in 2014 bodes well for the comedy, making it an easy frontrunner.

It’s hard to imagine the dinner table conversation George Miller and his wife Margaret Sixel conduct as anything less than thrilling, considering the duo’s collaborative work on one of the most engaging action films of the year. Sixel, who’d previously collaborated on Miller’s family films, was initially trepidatious about the idea of spinning 480 hours of raw footage into cinematic gold. But Miller, the ever-devoted optimist, was convinced that Sixel was the only woman for the job. “If I hired a man to cut it, It would look like every other action movie,” he told Huffington Post. And so (with perhaps significant amounts of cajoling), she did it.

“He’s my biggest fan,” Sixel gushed to the LA Times. “He likes everything I do. But I did bring my own sensibility to it. I’m not a Michael Bay fan. I don’t like meaningless cutting. It irritates me.” And while it sounds as though working on Mad Max must be one of the most electrifying experiences of an editor’s career, Sixel’s patience eventually became her biggest virtue. "Most days we would get between eight [and] 20 hours of material: endless footage of vehicles traveling, at the most 25 mph, and you have to turn it into a thrill ride," the editor told Indiewire. "It was a delicate balancing act, neither to shortchange sequences nor exhaust an audience.” Riding that delicate line, Sixel used principles of center framing to help make the action as comprehensible as possible, allowing the center of action to hit at the same point of the screen despite any number of cuts, allowing the intense action to play out like a flip book: incredibly detailed but still easy to follow.

Chances of winning: As in most categories, Mad Max: Fury Road is a safe film to place your bets on, especially considering the film’s extensive and meticulous editing. It would surprise few to see Sixel overtake Corwin in the name of her breathtakingly crafted action.

Best Picture favorite Spotlight may be one of the most understated films in the editing race, but the film is propellant despite its rather quiet subject matter. Director Tom McCarthy turned to his frequent collaborator Tom McArdle, who has been part of the director’s editing team since McCarthy’s debut The Station Agent, to craft tension from spreadsheet gazing and evening beer drinking. The result is one of the most thrilling and staggering films of the year. 

With an ensemble cast as deeply packed as Spotlight’s, the actors became McArdle’s first priority. “The first stage is just making sure we have all the right pieces of [the actors’] performances,” McArdle explained to The Credits’ very own Bryan Abrams. (Head right here for the full length interview on our site.) “ A lot of it is experimenting — we cut out five complete scenes, then we cut out fragments, which sometimes is just a line or two… It’s about finding a new place out of the scene to connect into the next scene, which then gives the film a little bit of energy. We took a journalistic approach… Tom has a real reserved sense of taste in the edit.” Though reserved, the careful construction of the film was extensive, with the team spending eight months cutting the piece together. “We screened the film every three weeks for a small group in the edit room, and we’d sit behind the group and get a feel for how it was playing and gauge if people were locked in or not. Then afterwards we’d get their feedback and ask if they were following information, and we’d repeat this process every three weeks for five and a half months," McArdle told us. All that testing paid off in spades, as McArdle and McCarthy have churned out a film that keeps you captivated until the final statistics scroll devastatingly across the screen.

Chances of Winning: Not fantastic, but considering Spotlight is a strong contender for Best Picture, McArdle could take it home in an upset.

Rounding out its status as an Oscar favorite with yet another nomination, The Revenant’s editor Stephen Mirrione is the whiz kid partly responsible for the film’s protracted shots and breath-taking bear attack sequence that required hours of careful choreography and seamless editing. The three-time Oscar nominee who was also nominated for his work with Inarritu on Babel, faced his biggest challenge yet with the frigid epic.  

Despite the extensive planning required to accomplish the film’s ambitious look, because of the changing weather and unpredictable locations, Mirrione often had to work on short notice. “On the day of shooting a lot of times they would start with rehearsals at the beginning of the day based on whatever we’d already determined and then they’d send me the video… to help decide what [Inarritu] was actually going to shoot in the afternoon; what was working and what wasn’t and how things would go together or not or whether the rhythm was feeling right or not,” Mirrione told Awards Daily. And though the editor is afforded the ability to avoid the trials of the set in the safety of the edit suite, Mirrione’s on-set presence was often necessary.  “I needed to be very close, in Calgary, and then depending on the day I would go on set for several pivotal scenes….as an editor that’s a really tricky position to be in. You generally want to avoid being in the middle of whatever the cast and crew are experiencing in real life,” the editor told Studio Daily. Despite any on-set hand-wringing, the film’s final result is nothing short of stupefying, with Mirrione working hard to bring Inarritu’s exacting vision to life.

Chances of Winning: Considering the much-hyped look of the film (including that now-notorious bear scene), The Revenant stands a considerable chance of winning, but against The Big Short and Mad Max: Fury Road, this could be one category from which the revenge thriller might not arise victorious.

When taking on a franchise as beloved and canonical as Star Wars, you have no choice but to come prepared with your A-team. For J.J. Abrams, that meant bringing on frequent collaborators Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey to cut Star Wars: The Force Awakens into a follow-up worthy of its considerable hype. Looking to reinvigorate, not reconstitute, the look and feel of the original series, the two worked closely with the actors’ performances and the VFX team to assemble a film that would feel as lasting as George Lucas’ predecessors.

Though the pair conducted extensive research to help bring Abrams’ vision to the screen, neither of them were massive Star Wars fans before they began the project, with Markey having never even seen the original films. “I think there was an actual advantage to that,” Markey told Creative Cow.  “I didn't have this feeling of things being sacred. I could just look at it, maybe at times a little more dispassionately… And I think J.J. felt that too. In fact, when I first told him that I hadn't seen the Star Wars movies, he said he didn't want me to see them. That was his first response. ‘Oh that's great! Don't see them! You'll be be like the person we want to attract who's never seen the movies.’” Working in the early stages on a film that requires extensive VFX work can be a challenge for editors, but both Brandon and Markey had clever ways to work around any potential snag.  Mary Jo and I do a lot of designing of it in our heads,” Brandon explained. “We cut the pieces we [had] around [the VFX shots], and… we put in placeholder cards in the sequence. Then we talked to ILM – Roger Guyett, our visual effects supervisor, we conveyed what we're going for, and they talked to us about what they could do.” Also careful to pay respect to the characters and the performances behind them, Brandon and Markey wanted to use the emotion of the actors to help ground the more intense action the film had to offer. "We put extreme effort into searching through the dailies and finding the performances that bring to life the sequences," Brandon told The Hollywood Reporter. "It was a big challenge because [the VFX action sequences] take a big center stage. But they [also needed] the human, emotional component.”

Chances of Winning: Standing amongst four other giants, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has little chance of taking home this statue, but with its record breaking box office numbers, one could argue it’s the real winner anyway.

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