How to Edit a Movie: Insights from the 2021 Best Editing Oscar Nominees

How to Edit a Movie: Insights from the 2021 Best Editing Oscar Nominees

If there’s anything Oscar knows how to do, it’s edit a movie! What’s the takeaway from the 2021 crop of nominees?

The 93rd Academy Award nominations are full of surprises as the entertainment industry still struggles to figure out the future of film releases. There were exceptions made for this year’s awards, though many potential Oscar hopefuls withdrew their releases entirely for a future theatrical release.

Certain streaming releases were nominated, like Soul for Best Animated Film, which debuted simultaneously in theaters and on Disney Plus. Other big films—like the latest Bond film—have abandoned their original release dates and even rescheduled dates. No Time To Die is currently slated for October 8th, 2021, nearly a full year after what was to be its release.

This gave the opportunity for many smaller films to shine and contend for an Oscar. Over on the PremiumBeat blog, we talked about how the Best Picture and Best Cinematography nominees were captured, but now let’s turn our focus on how those films came together in the edit.

Nomadland – Chloe Zhao

Chloe Zhao Writer/director Chloe Zhao. Image via Taylor Jewell/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

A filmmaker with many hats, Chloe Zhao helmed Nomadland as the producer, director, writer, and editor. Nomadland is nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing.

Zhao adapted the film from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century. In keeping with the theme, Zhao and her partner/cinematographer Joshua James Richards took to the road in their Ford Transit van “Akira” to cross the U.S. and film over four months.

In an interview with fellow director Alfonso Cuarón, Zhao shared her telepathic type of relationship with cinematographer Richards and how they edit their films:

That’s partially because he has sat with me in the editing process for all three films. I always do the first cut, so he understands how I want to edit the footage. I don’t need to tell him how to cover it because a lot of times he knows where I’m going to cut. That’s probably why we have a shorthand.

Chloe Zhao via Interview Magazine

Sound of Metal – Mikkel E.G. Nielsen

Riz Ahmed Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal. Image via Amazon/​Moviestore/​Shutterstock.

Academy Award-nominated film Sound of Metal has earned much of its praise for the sound design being so well incorporated into the edit. The film earned six Oscar nominations—Best Picture, Best Editing (Mikkel E.G. Nielsen), Best Actor (Riz Ahmed), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Raci), Best Sound, and Best Screenplay.

Director Darius Marder was intensely passionate about how the film was shot and edited. As for finding the right collaborators, Oscar-nominated editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen revealed:

Darius invited me to an interview. He used to be an editor himself so he was particularly focused on this role. Two or three weeks before they finished shooting, I interviewed with him and they offered me the film. I connected with the script quickly, and they showed me some of the dailies at that point, too.

What we wanted was to awaken your senses—to develop a contract between you and I as the audience to awaken our senses by looking at the details, but also listening to the details. We show a smoothie, but also show a smoothie without the sound. The pharmacist scene towards the beginning, when he starts to lose his hearing, is the first one where you go in and out of dialogue. You become disoriented and do not know what is going out. Then you cut out and hear all the words about Ruben that other people are saying to him. And then, you go into his head again. It almost becomes like a horror movie for us as an audience to experience what he is experiencing.

Mikkel E.G. Nielsen via Below the Line News

As for the film’s rather unique focus on sound in the edit, Nielsen worked closely with the sound editors and engineers.

We actually invited those sound techniques in the editing process. We had discussed it because we know how the sound can make you feel, like you are inside his head, but it is the editing that gets you into his head. We selected the scenes to mold the structure of sending you into and outside of Ruben’s head. The question was: “When do we want to see things as Ruben experiences them?” And, that is the framework for the editing.

Mikkel E.G. Nielsen via Below the Line News

Nielsen often talks about finding a balance between the film’s visual edit and sound. Supervising Sound Editor Nicolas Becker gave Nielsen a lot of atmospheres that he would work with almost as a score, implementing feedback and reverb organically throughout the film.

Becker expands on the challenges of capturing this film, where he said:

I used all the unusual microphones you can find, like hydrophones and a DIY stethoscope mic. I even recorded sounds with soldian sensors like contact mics, accelerometers, and geophones. Also, I have some mics you can put in your mouth, without any problems, so you can record those sounds of breathing from inside. I also have extremely sensitive mics [that] are maybe 200 times more accurate than the human ear, so if you go in a very quiet place, you can really get ridiculous sounds, like tendons moving in your hands, or the muscles of your face.

Nicolas Becker via Deadline

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Alan Baumgarten

The Trial of the Chicago 7Sacha Baron Cohen, Danny Flaherty, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, and Mark Rylance in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Image via Netflix/​Moviestore/​Shutterstock.

Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 earned six nominations—Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael), Best Screenplay, Best Editing (Alan Baumgarten), Best Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen), and Best Original Song.

The film comes from the masterful writer, Aaron Sorkin, who also directed the feature. It is Sorkin’s second film as a director/writer, and editor Alan Baumgarten was impressed with Sorkin’s attention to detail.

Most scripts have a destination, but I can’t say that they’re always as watertight as what Aaron delivers.

Alan Baumgarten via The Hollywood Reporter

After the first few weeks of production, the post team had to move into a remote workflow. Cuts were viewed on PIX and Sorkin would then send notes by email or Zoom.

All of our “fine-cutting” was done this way. We were not able to screen the film in a theater with an audience at any point during the process. In fact, Aaron has often noted that the only time he screened the film with an audience was at a drive-in premiere at the Rose Bowl that Netflix organized for the film.

Alan Baumgarten via Post Perspective

As for cutting together intense moments with subtle reactions and silence, Baumgarten says:

I was looking for the subtle reactions and silent beats to keep the characters alive within a scene and let them comment, so to speak, by observing . . . Watching them observe tells us what’s going on with them.

Alan Baumgarten via Post Perspective

Promising Young Woman – Frédéric Thoraval

Promising Young WomanDirector of Photography Benjamin Kracun, Writer/Director Emerald Fennell, Sam Richardson as Paul, and Carey Mulligan as Cassandra Thomas in Promising Young Woman. Image via M Weismiller Wallace/​Focus/​Kobal/​Shutterstock.

The crime thriller Promising Young Woman earned five nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Emerald Fennell), Best Editing (Frédéric Thoraval), Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), and Best Screenplay.

Director Emerald Fennell provided the production team with a very 1990s-driven moodboard. The pop-inspired color aesthetic pulled inspiration from films like Clueless and Sweet Valley High. She even provided a playlist of music that both inspired the film, and would be featured on the soundtrack.

Editor Fred Thoraval talks about the power of the boards:

Yes, both the moodboard and the playlist. It was giving a clear idea of what she was aiming for. It was, at the same time, intriguing and exciting. Emerald sent a more elaborate version of the moodboard to the whole crew before the first day of the shoot, too. I found this very clever. It was a great way to invest everybody on set.

Fred Thoraval via Pro Video Coalition

As for the use of the music in the edit, Thoraval shares:

A lot of the music cues that Emerald was referring to in the script and in the playlist are in the movie, at the end of the day. “Toxic” was in the playlist twice. The Paris Hilton song. The Wagner. The “King and I.” All those songs or music cues were very important to connect with Cassie because every time you hear one of those songs, it reflects the state of mind where Cassie is—her moods are very connected to the music. I think the movie wouldn’t be the same at all if we didn’t have those cues.

Fred Thoraval via Pro Video Coalition

The Father – Yorgos Lamprinos

The FatherImogen Poots, Olivia Colman, and Sir Anthony Hopkins in The Father. Image via Sony Pictures Classics/​Moviestore/​Shutterstock.

Florian Zeller‘s drama The Father earned six nominations for Best Picture, Best Editing (Yorgos Lamprinos), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Olivia Colman), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Production Design.

While an intense piece for viewers, the film also caused the production team to look at their own mortality. Editor Yorgos Lamprinos revealed:

To me, it was a really intense script. I had to stop while reading the script, just to gather myself a bit, and that doesn’t happen every day. So, I knew that we had something powerful on the pages, and hopefully, we managed to put something powerful on the screen.

Yorgos Lamprinos via Deadline

As for his meetings with director Florian Zeller, Lamprinos recalls the film that played through his head as he read:

When I read the script, one of the first things I talked to him about is that to me, even if it’s not that, I had a horror movie in my head—which is not exactly the film. But, that was my approach, and where we needed to put the audience. We also talked about [the idea that] the most important thing in the film is to put the audience exactly in Anthony’s head. So, the first discussions revolved around those types of things.

Yorgos Lamprinos via Deadline

As for his favorite parts to edit, and his own realization of the relationship with his own aging father, Lamprinos said:

The scene at the beginning of the film, with Imogen Poots and Anthony, where he does the tap dancing the first time, it was a bliss to edit that scene. That was pure bliss. [Laughs] It was many, many moments, emotional moments between Olivia and Anthony that blew me away. The scenes in the hospital, they’re super deep, emotional.

Also, while I was alone in Paris, editing the first cut while they were shooting, I had a week that the film really took a toll on me, and it was quite hard. Because the film [deals with] situations that we all go through, even if the other people around don’t all have dementia.

I saw my father. I don’t see him often. He’s in Greece, and I saw him a couple of weeks before starting to work on the movie. It was the first time I saw him [in a while], and he felt old to me, if you understand what I mean. So, while I was working in the beginning, I had a couple of weeks where it was, even to me, a bit tough emotionally. But then, obviously, as an editor, when you work on a film that has material like that, you need to block things off a bit, because you don’t want to get crazy yourself. [Laughs]

But I feel like the whole point, also, of the movie is that people think about situations, and how we treat each other, without getting any lesson from the movie. That’s something I’m really proud of, also. I don’t think it’s a movie that gives you lessons. But, at the same time, I hope that people, at the end of the movie, consider things, think about things, and try to maybe even change their way of doing things.

Yorgos Lamprinos via Deadline

For more award-winning filmmaking tips and advice, check out these articles:

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Top image via Netflix/Moviestore/Shutterstock.

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