Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, will take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” First up: Film Editing, with insights from Life of Pi‘s Tim Squyres, Silver Linings Playbook‘s Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, and Zero Dark Thirty‘s Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, the latter of whom also cut Argo, making him one of only a handful of editors in Oscar history to compete with himself. Lincoln‘s Michael Kahn completes the category. (Update: Read our Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography pieces.)

Ask a film editor what the biggest misconception is about his or her role, and the answer is the same: “It sounds funny, but a lot of people tend to think it’s a purely technical job where you literally go in and cut slates off, and the director says, ‘Do that, do that, do that,'” says William Goldenberg, Oscar-nominated this year for both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and previously for The Insider and Seabiscuit. What will surprise those moviegoers then is just how many decisions the editor actually makes — and when. Let’s start with an overview:

• The editor begins work when cameras start rolling, not after they stop, and typically does the first cut of the film on his or her own. “This is something that people always seem surprised to find out,” says Tim Squyres, who’s edited every film Ang Lee has directed but Brokeback Mountain and received an Oscar nomination for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before Life of Pi. “If they start shooting on a Monday, and I get the footage on Tuesday, Ang is shooting another scene on Tuesday, so he can’t be in the editing room. So the editor always does the first pass by themselves. I cut scenes and show them to Ang, and I usually don’t get any feedback, because all he needs to know from me while we’re shooting is whether the scene was covered. If he feels that he has everything he needs, he forgets about it and worries about what he’s shooting tomorrow. About two weeks after the end of shooting, we sit down and watch the whole movie as a movie, and he hasn’t seen it yet. He’s only seen it scene by scene. That’s the way it has to work. Some directors are more involved than others in editing during production — it partly depends on schedule and partly depends on the director’s preferences.”

Goldenberg, for example, who’d previously cut Gone Baby Gone for Ben Affleck, went to the Argo director’s home editing room every Sunday, even during production, to show him his week’s worth of work. “Even though I wasn’t getting specific notes from him, I was getting a feel for what he wanted. It was almost like by osmosis: just having all his conversations in my head gave me a feeling of like, Oh, I know Ben would hate this or I know this isn’t what he’s looking for.” Affleck turned over nearly 1 million feet of film, including a noteworthy amount of footage of a parrot being enticed to squawk for the tense airport finale (which Goldenberg will dissect for us later). “It was really hilarious, because you couldn’t see Ben, but you could hear him off-camera. He’s just squawking and squawking and squawking, and then the bird would finally do it, and he would squawk over the bird or be talking over it,” Goldenberg says. “It was a lot of bird.”

Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, meanwhile, delivered roughly double that amount — or about 320 hours of footage — thanks to her fondness for shooting multi-camera (maybe seven at once on big scenes). It would have been impossible for one editor to handle that volume on their clock, so Goldenberg joined Dylan Tichenor, previously nominated for There Will Be Blood, at the end of shooting. “We were in a little house in Studio City. He was in the master bedroom and I was in the living room,” Goldenberg says. They worked on separate scenes, but consulted with one another and sometimes swapped, like after Goldenberg spent his first month on the climactic raid and showed a 45-minute first cut. “We kinda all knew it was too long, but Kathryn just needed to live with it for a while and sort of enjoy it in all its grandeur,” Goldenberg says. “Dylan did a pass where he was able to make it shorter, where I think if I had done it, somehow Kathryn woudn’t have accepted it as easily. I don’t know why that happens.” Offers Tichenor, “That’s one of the great things about having more than one editor: Someone passes you the sequence and then you look at it fresh and go, ‘Oh, what if we did this, this, and this? And maybe this makes more sense.’ You have this objectivity because you haven’t sat and gone through the work. That helped us enormously in this film.”

What kinds of decisions are the editors making? We asked them to walk us through scenes to show us.

NEXT: Choosing the right take

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

As Life of Pi‘s Squyres puts it, “An actor might read a particular line between six and 100 times, but only one take’s gonna be in the movie.” It’s the editor’s job to pick it, at least initially. It was on Sense and Sensibility, his fourth film with Lee, that Squyres had the epiphany all good editors experience: “It was the first film that I had done with Ang that was all in English, and it’s Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Grant — these great, great actors. When you get footage like that, you realize that your job is really not technical. It was my job to look at something that Emma Thompson had done and say, ‘Eh, that’s not good, I’ll use this other one instead.’ And not only was I allowed to pass judgment on these tremendous actors, I was required to. I think every editor gets to that point where you go, ‘Oh, they’re actually asking me to be an artist.'”

Great directors and actors give editors a range of performances to choose from. “So part of the editor’s job is to go through these performances and calibrate which is the right tone, which is the right level of intensity to use,” says Crispin Struthers, a first-time nominee for David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (the first film in more than 30 years to have acting nominees in all four categories). The early scene he and fellow editor Jay Cassidy, a second-time nominee after Into the Wild, point to is the fight Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) have when a hopeful Pat returns from a run and seeing his friend Ronnie and tries to call his ex-wife, who has a restraining order against him.

Believe it or not, Struthers adds, that later bedroom scene of Pat Sr. breaking down (pictured) while telling Pat that he wants to do everything he can now to help him get back on his feet was, at one point, not in the movie, as they were looking to trim. They weren’t sure they could go from Pat Sr. being that emotional with his son upstairs to Pat Sr. giving his son a pep talk about attending the Eagles game downstairs. “We were thinking, Gosh, you can’t have both of these De Niro scenes right next to each other,” Cassidy says, “but you know what, you could.”

Credit: Claire Folger

The tonal balancing act was also at the center of Argo, and never more delicate than in the sequence when Alan Arkin’s character organizes a read-through of the fake hit Argo at the Beverly Hilton.

The hard line Bigelow drew for the tone of Zero Dark Thirty is, perhaps, best explained in the sequences she didn’t use.

NEXT: Keeping the story rolling when everything is happening, and when you’re simply adrift

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

An editor wants to draw the audience into the story and keep them there. Tichenor paraphrases a quote he’s sure others have said, but that stuck with him when he heard it from Goldenberg’s mentor, Michael Kahn, who’s won three Oscars and is nominated again this year for Lincoln: Editing is often trying to find the least amount of material to effectively tell the story. “Audiences will react, even unconsciously, very badly to repetitive information. If they feel like, ‘Yeah, I got that already, you don’t need to show that to me again,’ then they start to get shifty, or bored, or you lose the tension that you’ve gained up to that point,” Tichenor says.

The Zero Dark Thirty editors point to the section of the film when they’re tracking Osama bin Laden’s courier Abu Ahmed — from the moment they get his mother’s phone number from a Kuwait informant to where they actually find him in his little white SUV driving around Pakistan. “Being able to tell that story clearly, having the audience track along with it, and having it build to a culmination was, I think, one of the more difficult sections of the movie,” Goldenberg says. “Hopefully it doesn’t appear that way, and it’s exciting and great to watch, but there were so many different ways to go…. There was one day where Kathryn and I had moved some stuff around and taken big sections of it out trying to accelerate it, and we thought we had just like done it and we were so excited. And then she was in the other room, and I looked at it more carefully, and I realized, Oh this doesn’t really make sense, because how does this person know that? And the look of disappointment on Kathryn’s face. I was so heartbroken to go to tell her. You felt like it was a punch in the stomach.” (How do they know when they’ve finally got it right? For that, Goldenberg likes to quote director Tony Scott, for whom he cut 2005’s Domino. “He would look at a scene and say, ‘Something itches.’ He didn’t know what it was, but something would bug him, and you’d go attack that area. You’ve just got to work until it doesn’t bug you anymore.”)

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Argo was, obviously, another film that had built-in tension. “Even watching the dailies, my stomach was in a knot,” Goldenberg says. “I remember watching the dailies where they’re all waiting at passport control and I sent Ben an email saying, ‘Just watching the dailies makes me anxious.’ And I think he somehow misinterpreted my email as saying it was a lot of film and I was anxious about it. He’s like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take our time, and we’ll get through it all.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no. I’m anxious because the footage is so good it’s making me feel anxious.’ I knew it would only get better as we cut the pieces together.”

When editors present first cuts of scenes to directors, they like to include rough ideas of sound effects and temporary music, so it feels like a film. It was Goldenberg’s idea to have the sound slowly fade out in the airport to make the audience feel as though they were inside the houseguests’ worried minds:

Because of all the visual effects in Life of Pi, Squyres and Ang Lee had to find a number of different ways to be able to sit down and watch it like a movie. “We developed a lot of things to put the crude animation and crude backgrounds in right away so that we didn’t have to sit there and watch a boat with no tiger in it and walls of the wave tank with no sky and no ocean,” Squyres says. Still, that wasn’t the toughest part. Nor was editing in 3-D glasses for two years. It was structuring the story — cutting back and forth between the storytellers in the present day and the story that’s being told in the past, and then the extended flashback to Pi’s journey. “Our main character is drifting at sea. He’s not planning the bank robbery or trying to coordinate all kinds of things — stuff just happens when it happens, without any real cause and effect. So to give the audience a sense of being adrift at sea without them feeling like the movie is adrift is actually quite tricky.”

The scene Squyres points to is when Pi gets the stick and tries to train Richard Parker.

Now that you know what an editor does, here’s the kicker: “It’s not always the case that editing should be invisible — it depends on what kind of movie you’re making — but generally speaking, if you’re watching the editing, you’re not watching the movie,” Squyres says. “Ideally, when you’re editing, you’re doing kind of what you would do if you were in the room watching the scene that’s going on. When you cut to something new, it should seem like what you’re seeing now is better than what you would have seen if you stayed where you were. You’re getting some new piece of information that keeps you engaged and involved in the scene. And if it does, then you just watch the story and enjoy it.”

Read more:

  • Movie
  • 120 minutes