February 15, 2015

This is What Good & Bad Editing is According to 3 Oscar-Winning Editors

What is "Oscar-worthy" film editing? 

The 87th Academy Awards are only a week away, which means everybody is arguing about which films, actors, directors, DPs, etc. deserve to walk away with that coveted golden statue. One hotly debated topic is which film should win for Best Film Editing -- the nominees being American SniperBoyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash, the latter being a bit of a favorite.

But what makes a film's editing worthy of an Oscar? Better yet, what makes editing -- good? Or bad? Oscar-winning editors, as well as this year's contenders, William Goldenberg (The Imitation Game) and frequent collaborators Joel Cox and Gary Roach (American Sniper) explain to Variety what they think good and bad editing is, as well as how editors are, in a way, instruments of mind control.

The way Goldenberg, Cox, and Roach describe good editing reminds me of Invisible Boy from Mystery Men: his superpower in the film is invisibility, but he can only become invisible when no one is looking at him. The same idea goes for good editing -- the power can only be harnessed when no one is looking or paying attention to it.

The key here is that the best, most powerful editing is hidden, or as Cox says, a great edit is an "edit you don't see." Of course, there are times when editing draws attention to itself to accentuate a moment, an atmosphere, a tone, or emotion, but in general, editing is supposed to go unnoticed in service to the story. Like Goldenberg says:

You're being taken on a journey where you don't feel like, "Why am I seeing this? What is this about? What does this scene mean?" If you have questions like that, probably the editing isn't good.

This insight, though powerful, isn't going to turn you into an overnight editing success. There is so much to learn in terms of visual storytelling -- pacing, film language, montage theory -- techniques that have been invented, used, and transformed for over a century. Editing is no cut and paste job; it's a complicated and intricate art form, but knowing the difference between good and bad editing, especially three Oscar-winners' definition of "good" and "bad", is a great place to start.     

Your Comment

25 Comments

Editing is a talent. Either you have it or you don't. If you have that talent, you can train it, but you can't teach it to someone who doesn't have it.

February 15, 2015 at 11:17PM

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Judging by the down votes I think you hit a nerve among the writer/director/producer/DoP/compositor/CGI artist/actor/editor/"film makers" in the room.

Jack of all trades etc. etc.

February 16, 2015 at 9:54AM

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Stelrad Two Machine Doulton
Editor by choice, film maker by necessity.
267

There seem to be a lot of those these days. . .

February 16, 2015 at 11:43AM

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Joshua Bowen
Editor
697

I'm one of those, but I don't claim to be good at any one thing. I just film stuff I like and keep to my DIY underworld !

February 16, 2015 at 6:11PM

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Pat Heine
Producer.
167

Oh please, of course it can be learned. It's not a touch of God that only the elite have, it's a pair of scissors, some glue, and a brain.

February 18, 2015 at 4:31AM, Edited February 18, 4:31AM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1630

I agree with this.. but of course I do, I'm an editor.
You can train the button pushing, the technical side, even bits of story telling, but the rhythm and the minute details of shot selection. That comes from something inside. Many people can play the drums, but you can't really teach the pocket.

February 18, 2015 at 6:53PM

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Seth Evans
Editor
391

This is a pretty shallow way to look at it. Nothing that is intricate can be taught, but it can be and must be self taught. What you either have or don't have is the interest to teach yourself. With that interest comes immersion and a desire to absorb knowledge like a sponge. This is true for every endeavor that is part technical and part artistic.

February 19, 2015 at 4:11PM

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bobspez
Retired unix sys admin
182

Really well said. This is the truest statement I've seen about the art of filmmaking. Thanks for sharing.

March 6, 2015 at 2:58AM

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Scott Lynch
Producer / Editor
81

ignent

February 20, 2015 at 7:45AM

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Jeremy A
Teacher/Director
89

Editing is mainly about rythm, and that is something you have or you don't have.

Sorry for bad English.

March 4, 2015 at 1:13PM

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I have to agree with Ty. I own a post house in Germany and also teach editing at universities. More than often I see students who are great with the structure as well as knowing the principle of editing but don't have the rhythm and that ruins it all.

I have hired young editors with far better feeling when it comes to rhythm and pace than seniors with 10-15 years more experience. I have had tv-editors who's been cutting for many many years who does a great job at building a story but will never be hired for a scripted editing job. Most obvious is comedy... It is tough finding an editing who can do it, most people don't have the right timing and rhythm to make a cut funny, unfortunately...

Just like some of these comments on how editing can just be taught, I see that problem in a lot of indiefilms and smaller project. They hire very talented and experienced photographers and writers, but gives the editing to just about anyone who knows how an editing program works (pretty much)...

May 1, 2015 at 7:08PM

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Leo R
74

There's an episode of Futrama called "Godfellas" where bender has a conversation with "god" and I've always thought it was a great editing analogy. The whole conversation is there for context, but it's really the last sentence that falls in line with what was stated in this article.

"God Entity: Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch, like a safecracker or a pickpocket.

Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money.

God Entity: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all."

February 16, 2015 at 1:57AM

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Julian Faras
Editor, Cinematographer, Director
450

talented parallel thinking! very nice.

February 16, 2015 at 3:59AM

0
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Ha, ha, ha, your right.

February 16, 2015 at 11:42AM, Edited February 16, 11:42AM

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Good editing ... see Sherlock!

February 16, 2015 at 2:34AM

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Editing is indeed mind control, because editing evokes thoughts, asociations and emotions.
When you see a deer walking in a meadow and you see a lion lurking in the tall grass, you think: "That deer is in danger, but has no idea about it."

February 16, 2015 at 4:00AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
9029

Why didn't they get the editors for Whiplash or Boyhood? In my opinion, American Sniper and The Imitation Game were the worst movies to be nominated. I can give American Sniper points for Bradley Cooper's acting but that's about it.
Birdman and Gone Girl should have been nominated instead.

February 16, 2015 at 10:21AM

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Angelo García
Director
70

Birdman didn't win for editing because it was just one long take.

(That's a JOKE! I think it should have won, too!)

November 13, 2016 at 7:38PM

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Invisible editing is great for Hollywood, but some times the goal is to make the audience think about the film, to ask themselves why. This is how an editor can elevate a movie to a piece of art.

February 16, 2015 at 8:42PM, Edited February 16, 8:42PM

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David Katz
Editor
74

Indeed Mr. Katz.

February 16, 2015 at 11:51PM

6
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Truth! I'm often surprised by the way fellow editors discuss the craft. The catch-all slogan of editing is to "make it invisible", but that really dumbs it down. Editing at it's highest is the construction of meaning between two very distant images, which is something only editing can reproduce. And considering the rhythm and changes of rhythm in images is rarely brought up.

February 17, 2015 at 12:16AM

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Paul B
296

The craft is invisible.
The art is jarring.

February 25, 2015 at 3:42PM

0
You voted '-1'.
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Stelrad Two Machine Doulton
Editor by choice, film maker by necessity.
267

I am kind-of dissappointed to not see Wild on the oscar-nomination list for editing.
While Budapest Hotel, Birdman and Whiplash were definitely well edited (American Sniper was good, but nothing exceptional), Wild was something that I felt really used the power of editing to push the experience and the setting (though they completely fell flat in the ending).

February 19, 2015 at 4:43AM, Edited February 19, 4:43AM

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Philip Drobar
Video Editor
282

These editors made some very instructive insights on editing. Which I do agree with them, since, as Film Makers we are essentially story tellers and there needs to be a harmony between the story and editing, without it, the story will not flow.

I think it was Robert Rodriguez that said the best: "If you're just creative, you'll always have to rely on technical people. If you're creative and technical, you're unstoppable."

On another note, was reading some of the comments in this post, and one that came up to my attention was the one that Ty Gotham mentioned,
" Editing is a talent. Either you have it or you don't. If you have that talent, you can train it, but you can't teach it to someone who doesn't have it."

I guess he just wanted a bit of commotion, but Its all good, i like the diversity, I mean after all, we all have our opinions. Though his statement is true to an extent.

See, if we have that set given talent, it can be develop further and polished and yes some people are naturals at set talent. But its like all things in life, if there is a passion and the desire is to learn to be better, then that goal will be achieved.

So, yes, it can be thought.

Now, its even simpler to learn, since you have these great websites (like the one we are on now). I mean, come on, the information is handed to you on daily posts, all that we need to do is just do our homework; read, communicate, watch and learn from excellent film editors, and then develop your own style of art.

February 20, 2015 at 10:44AM

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Bryan Garces
Film Maker @dunowlstudios
74

I used to do a lot of everything on a film, DP it, Sound rec it, make up etc but lately I've left a lot of it to people more capable and experienced. However, the one I still do is editing. Not only out of necessity which most indie filmmakers do, but also because of the hassle of going back and forth with another editor. Though is you do have a studio budget and an editing booth given to you, of course everybody should work with a much experienced editor.

November 13, 2016 at 12:49PM

3
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Frank Oh
Producer
132