What Makes Editing Award-Worthy? We Ask Award-Winning Editors.
Part of the argument around the Academy’s (in our view) wrong-headed decision to not award the Best Editing award in the regular live Oscars show is that it’s hard to understand what makes a film well-edited. During hundreds of interviews, we’ve found that even editors can find the subject difficult to discuss.
To get some idea what the criteria are for a Best Editor award, we asked members of the American Cinema Editors and of the Academy. We’d like to thank them all for their time and candor—their answers may surprise you.
Niven Howie, ACE
(Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dawn of the Dead)
“It’s very difficult to choose the best edited film. I’ve always gone to screenings that have a Q&A with the filmmakers. Hearing firsthand what they found to be difficult or easy during the editing process—and especially how supportive the director is—will help me decide who to vote for. Then there is, of course, my own viewing experience and if I ‘felt’ the edits or not.
A bad edit really takes me out of the movie. If it’s well edited, I will either not feel the edits or love what they did for a particular montage sequence. But if I stay in the unfolding story until the credits, it is well edited.”
Job ter Burg, ACE, NCE
(Elle, Brimstone, Benedetta)
“Overall, I’m looking for any work that is cinematic. I know that’s a broad term, but a lot of what’s out there registers scenes and doesn’t use shots—and juxtaposition of shots—to create emotional meaning.
I also prefer films where scenes have strong points of view, meaning that the filmmakers use the cinematic tools at their disposal to make me look at something in a specific way. It can be the point of view of a character, but it can also be the point of view of the filmmaker, confronting the audience with the scene.
I tend to not be easily thrilled by very ‘cutty’ stuff, although sometimes it’s done so beautifully and musically that it would warrant my vote. I also need to feel the film is balanced. That it feels controlled. That I feel guided through the narrative in a rhythmically interesting way.”
Fred Raskin, ACE
(Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Suicide Squad)
“Frankly, it really comes down to two very simple questions. ‘Did I love the movie?’ And ‘Was there anything about the filmmaking that took me out of my viewing experience?’ If the answers are yes to the first and no to the second, that film will likely have my vote.
Determining how well-edited a movie is is a fool’s errand. The reality is that you cannot accurately make that assessment without having seen the dailies from which the editor was working.So to truly be fair about it, each voter would have to watch not only the finished product, but also the hundreds of hours of material from which it was culled, which, of course, will never happen.
“Determining how well-edited a movie is is a fool’s errand.”
Because of this, the only truly fair category in the Eddies is the student competition. After seeing ten different versions of the same three-minute scene, you end up with a pretty strong understanding of the content of the dailies. And you can, therefore, accurately determine who made the most of them.
My favorite movie of 2021—by a wide margin—was Spielberg’s West Side Story, a knock-you-on-your-ass masterpiece that shamefully went unrecognized by both ACE and the Editor’s branch of the Academy.
The filmmaking is breathtaking, each beautifully-designed shot leading seamlessly into the next, the editing rhythms timed so that the action on the screen falls in line with the tempo of the music, and never in a way that calls attention to itself. I haven’t seen the footage with which Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar were working, but I was so blown away by every aspect of the experience—the gorgeous photography capturing the explosive choreography, the beautifully mixed music and singing, and the stirring emotionality of the piece—that the movie had to have my vote.
Because while I may not be able to accurately assess good editing, I can definitely assess magnificent filmmaking, and this picture had it in spades.”
Harry Yoon, ACE
(Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Minari)
“First and foremost, I think about my experience of the film as a whole and if it left a lasting impact on me. But I also try to recall those moments in watching the film where I feel startled, in a good way, by an editorial decision.
The closest analogy I can come up with are those moments when a poem can make familiar words or phrases feel new. These moments often aren’t just about a cut but a synergy of picture, sound, and sometimes music. Those moments, taken collectively, keep me excited about the craft and I tend to vote for films that feature them.”
Paul Crowder, ACE
(The Beatles: 8 Days a Week, Dogtown and Z-Boys)
“In my experience, nine times out of ten everyone votes for their friends [laughs] For me, if a film specifically moves me and I noticed some great editing I will vote for those. But I see so little of the material up for awards, I am usually looking for projects I know. If they did a great job, then I will support them.
“Nine times out of ten everyone votes for their friends.”
I am a little indifferent to award events. Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely to get and to be nominated and it makes all that work worthwhile—for everyone involved, not just the nominee—but most of the time the nominations are due to a push by the distribution companies. Essentially another promotional possibility. So I’m not sure how accurately they reflect the work.”
Alan Heim, ACE
(Oscar-winner for All That Jazz, The Notebook)
“I like films that surprise me in the editing and take me along with as little exposition as possible. I loved Drive my Car. Though it was extremely long; I never felt it. CODA was beautifully structured and used a few tricks to get to the tears. I loved dropping the soundtrack when the daughter sang and just signing the everyday life of the parents. I loved Tick, Tick..Boom! and In the Heights for the beautifully cut musical numbers and how they were integrated into the film.
Basically I try to judge if the story moves me and how the editing helps. Of course, as soon as I start thinking about it, it warps my judgment. As for my own work, it’s so long ago that I’ve forgotten. I just tried to tell the story in the best way possible and I was lucky enough to work with a few brilliant people. That always helps.
By name, Fosse, Chayefsky, Lumet (when he was really on) and, surprise, Nick Cassavetes. Notebook did just what it was supposed to do, fill up the aisles with used tissues from teen girls.”
Joe Matoske, ACE
(ACE Eddie winner for Amazon on Fire)
“I’m fortunate to be both an Emmy and an ACE Eddie judge. When judging documentaries, I look for how well the scene connects and feels whole. If the editor is able to place you in the scene through building out the room or if they’re just getting right to the meat, how strong the fibers are between scenes holding them together.
For Best Edited Documentary (Non-theatrical), I voted for The Beatles, Get Back because I was constantly so impressed with how contemporary fly-on-the-wall the film was able to feel despite being produced 50 years ago. They had all of these moments that didn’t move the plot but were placed to make you feel like you were a crew member at rehearsal with them. Scenes effortlessly flowed into each other.”
(Star Trek: Discovery)
“An Editor who takes an unwatchable movie/TV show or a problematic shoot and makes it watchable is a greater accomplishment than a movie/TV show with a great script, director and actors staying great. Bohemian Rhapsody had the director walk off the production and the editor still came through.”
“It’s hard to judge the best editing without seeing the rushes. But let’s assume that all nominees had impeccable rushes, perfect rushes, beautiful and brilliant rushes… what then defines best editing?
“It’s hard to judge the best editing without seeing the rushes.”
For me, it comes down to whether the editing created a unique grammar that best serves that story and film. If the same scenes were transposed into another film, they wouldn’t work. That’s why Joe Walker’s memory scenes in Dune, Jabez Olssen’s crafting of archive in The Beatles: Get Back, and Hank Corwin’s freeze frames in Don’t Look Up are all so brilliant.
They all form a grammar that serves the film. They get my votes—although all of them were a bit too long.”
Joi McMillon, ACE
(Oscar nominee for Moonlight)
“What draws my attention to award-worthy editing are authentic and well-crafted performances.”
Robert Komatsu, ACE
(The X-Files, Halt and Catch Fire)
“Since we don’t have access to the dailies an editor has to work with for any given project, one of my strategies is to judge the overall pace and rhythm—not just for scenes, but for the arc of the project as a whole.
I also look out for ingenious editing styles, transitions, and match cuts that I can guess are not in the initial planning of the shoot, but just inspired by the editor when they worked on the footage.
For features, it’s kind of impossible to not know who the editors were, but for television, there are usually multiple episodes submitted. For the Eddies, the editor is not listed on the ballot, so when watching the episodes, it is more of a pure judgment of the editing. Of course, there’s always IMDb, though…”
Stephanie Filo, ACE
(Emmy-winning editor of A Black Lady Sketch Show)
“I think there’s some shows or movies that, when they finish, I’m like “I’ve GOTTA know who edited this!” because they were so captivating or unique or fun to watch, and in general those are the ones I found myself voting for.
This year, I certainly binged several (if not all) of the nominated shows in one sitting, for example, or something like Dune was such a beautiful and immersive experience that I kept thinking about for days after I saw it. I’ve watched Summer of Soul multiple times at this point because it’s just so well-done and beautifully edited. I guess for me, it’s always sort of about the experience, how I feel when watching, and how the edits stick with me after the fact.”
Sabrina Plisco, ACE
(Doctor Strange, Charlotte’s Web)
“Knowing awards season gets into full swing after the holidays, I dive in to watch movies and small-screen programming much earlier in the year. I try to make note of which stories affect me and especially how the editing moves me. I look for efficient storytelling as well as creative editing styles to convey story, and emotions which can range from fear to heartache to anger.
Editing also takes us through the passage of time both linearly and nonlinearly, which can greatly affect our perception of how a story is being told. Sometimes the editing can be bold and flashy but often it’s a subtle style of editing that moves me most.
For a craft that is often considered invisible, it is anything but invisible.”
(The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, Diana: In Her Own Words, Emmy nominee: Q: Into the Storm)
“When I’m considering what projects to vote for an editing award, it often comes down to whether there’s a standout scene or sequence that sticks with me long after I’ve watched. Whether I notice the specific edits in that scene or not, the fact that it stuck with me and I remember it after time has passed means the editor helped make it indelible.”
Wendy Hallam Martin ACE, CCE
(The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods)
“To me, the editing must move me in a way that supports the story and shows artistry in the choices made. I want to feel my way through the characters and the editor’s decision of shot size, length and who we are on when, makes all the difference in that experience.
I think there are many ways one can navigate the footage and when it works, it’s magical. That’s what a good editor is. The film and television editors I voted for made me get lost in the story, care for or strongly dislike a character, conjure emotions, and make me feel satisfied in the end.
“This is where the editor reminds the audience that editing is an art.”
I also love when an editor adds subtle flairs (the hidden gems) within a scene/moment, subtly added here and there. An example of this is in The Power Of The Dog when we get to spend some time with the scenery, the horses in the corral, the private moments of a character hiding his true feelings. I think this is where the editor reminds the audience that editing is an art. I voted for Peter Sciberras for The Power of The Dog, Amy Duddleston for Mare of Easttown, and the editors from Succession just to name a few.”
Joe Walker, ACE
(Oscar nominee Dune, Bladerunner 2049, Arrival)
“A rule of thumb for me is that if I saw the film and I was moved by it—whether heart-broken, frightened, or it made me laugh, however it is it moved me—and I arrived at the finishing post wanting more, then the editing must have been a part of its success.
Because nothing I’ve cut myself ever bolted together like a piece of Ikea furniture.Each needed some adjustment if not a radical re-haul, to work that well. And if there were two contenders that moved me equally, I’d be asking whether they found a voice for the editing, some kind of special personality.
The rhythm of scenes and how they vary or melt together would be an early indicator—which is why films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Sideways, or Mulholland Drive, to grab three very different examples at random, would all speak to me of a sophistication in editing that I think is deserving of recognition.”
Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, ACE
(John Wick, Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde)
“The most important things for me when watching a movie are story and character. Brave storytelling is always a plus. Contrived, I can’t stand.
When judging an edit, I look at how well the story is translated; no excessive dialogue and consistency in story, throughout. If it has a steady phasing that fits the story being told. And not the least, I look out for beautiful handwork, where cuts are deliberate and don’t feel jarring, ever.”
Felicia Livingston, ACE
(Winning Time, All American, American Crime)
“I’m drawn to films that allow me to escape into that film’s world, which allows me to be absorbed in the narrative. When I am in the film’s world I honestly do not pay attention to the editing.
Films that capture this also elicit a feeling in me of being on the journey with the characters. These are the qualities I look for, it boils down to the storytelling technique. When I notice the editing on a first viewing of a film then I am taken out of the story. I simply do not want to see the edit.
The films that won at the ACE Eddies are an example of feeling immersed in the story and the character’s journey. I loved King Richard, and to me Pamela Martin’s masterful editing helped to shape the story of this complicated man who audiences could understand and root for. Richard Williams was not a nice man at times and for the audience to feel for him and his family is amazing.
She deserved the Eddie and the Oscar in my opinion. In the documentary category, Summer of Soul, captured the feeling of actually being there in the park watching these amazing performances. The footage being stored away for over 50 years and the amount of footage to comb through, is mind-blowing to me.”
Chris Lebenzon, ACE
(ACE Eddie winner: Alice in Wonderland)
“I look at the movie, imagining the coverage that the editor had to work with—even though there’s no way of knowing for certain. Then I imagine who had to contribute the most to achieve the clearest narrative and hit the right emotional beats, all the time gauging how each scene was focused in the interest of the larger picture.”
“I imagine who had to contribute the most to achieve the clearest narrative and hit the right emotional beats.”
Lawrence Jordan, ACE
(Jack Frost, Are We There Yet?, CSI Miami)
“I can’t tell you who I voted for because this is prohibited by AMPAS. I will tell you my criteria for voting.
One—if I liked the movie. I would rarely, if ever, vote for a movie if I didn’t enjoy it. Just by virtue of the fact that I didn’t like it will usually prohibit me from considering it; however, I won’t say that there would never be an exception.
Two—in addition and related to one, I consider a film that I am completely engaged in well edited. For me this means the story flows well, I don’t feel bored, and I believe that the filmmakers considered me, the viewer, in making their editorial choices.
Conversely, when I am bored or feel a film is dragging, I usually won’t like it, and will usually feel the filmmakers were not considering the audience foremost—not considering their intelligence or generally just being self indulgent.
I will also vote for a film when it displays inventive, or creative editing techniques. I don’t mind being jarred by an edit or scene or story transition, if it is in service to the film as a whole.”
(Hustlers, Inventing Anna)
“When voting for best editing, I look for passion behind the work. There’s something so beautiful when a thoughtful rhythm within sequences is created. Whether the cutting style is kinetic or measured in pace, how it transports me as a viewer is what sits with me long after the movie is over.
“There’s something so beautiful when a thoughtful rhythm within sequences is created.”
I have a high appreciation when you can see how much attention to detail was poured into transitions, how the sound and music were implemented to support the edits, and when the cuts fall on the perfect frame.
I feel grateful, as a filmmaker, when I experience a film I’m excited to watch again to admire the craft and continue to be inspired as an audience member and fellow editor.”
Billy Fox, ACE
(Straight Outta Compton, Dolemite is my Name)
“Creatively original. Doesn’t fall into the standard editorial format. Strong and bold storytelling. And a perspective that considers the audience as an intelligent participant on the journey that the filmmaker is taking us on. And what did I vote for? Dune was by far the strongest.”
What do you think?
While there are some very clear themes here—not least the idea that the best edits are those that remain unnoticed until you actively look for them—it’s clear that judges and editors all have different views on what makes an edit award-worthy. Particularly when you’re looking at the finished product rather than what went on in the cutting room.
But what do you think? Should the Oscars feature Best Editing in the live show? (And if so, which category would you remove to make space?) What do you look for in a great edit, and who do you think will pick up the Oscar this year? Drop some feedback in the comments below!