OSCAR COUNTDOWN: Film Editing and Production Design

Our rapid fire countdown to Oscar night continues today with two categories greatly in need of new life being breathed into them. Both have only one nominee not also nominated for Best Picture, which feels more and more like a different kind of failure for diversity. It’s often hard to veer away from favorites in the editing category, but it shouldn’t be so difficult to acknowledge more independent achievements in production design.

The Big ShortFilm Editing

While this category often feels like a copy-paste of the most talked about films in the Best Picture category, recently it’s veered strongly away from being predictive of the Best Picture winner. The most recent winners – Whiplash, Gravity, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – have been hard-edged works of bravura filmmaking, loaded with excessive sensory details to parse through. Alejandro G. Innaritu is no stranger to that territory, though he understandably missed out last year when one-take wonder Birdman missed the ballot entirely. Inarritu’s collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki, popularly known for his exhilarating long takes, does put The Revenant at a disadvantage here. What editor Stephen Mirrione has in his favor, here, is an encouraged sense of languor and patience, maintaining suspense, and at times oppressive misery, for intense stretches. One thing that plenty of voters don’t consider: not cutting is as meaningful an editorial choice as cutting away.

The most conspicuous film here is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film ripe with mythic anticipation upon its announcement, and that spine tingling sense of excitement is inevitably packed into it. What tends to dilute that over the course of the film is J.J. Abrams’ typically relentless pace, not pausing enough for a sense of composure or thematic grace to set in. This is a film, after all, that hop-scotches from planet A to space station A, back to planet A, onto space station B, through to planet B, then to indistinguishable planet C, which may be destroyed by combo space station/planet D. In short, it’s something of a manic narrative mess, uncertain about where its heart is, much less where it’s heading.

The sense of hapless confusion overlaps in the jumbled structure of The Big Short, a film whose multiply juggled arcs of rich white dudes devising how to become richer white dudes don’t help in simplifying its very confusing, statistical subject matter. What starts as a fairly simple study of a single character’s financial discovery repeatedly expands to ever less coordinated, less compelling characters jumping on the financial decline bandwagon. It’s filled with bloated cutaways to blinkering numbers, fast moving vehicles, rustling money, and attractive celebrities spouting information they couldn’t possibly understand, so how are we supposed to. It’s meant to leave us exhausted and confused, but fails in translating an emotional hangover to match its physical one. That said, I can see this recklessly berserk appealing to voters who consider most to be best.

SpotlightThe Big Short could definitely learn a thing or two from Spotlight, another film densely layered with investigative details, but with a clearer, more composed sense of indignation. Like every aspect of the film, the editing declines showcasing itself in favor of servicing the central news story, statistically and emotionally. It doesn’t remotely show off. It gets to work, which can often come across as simple serviceability, but there’s candor, patience and understanding to how it carefully shifts our emotional focus, as well as the characters’, until we’re undeniably immersed. In short, it’s not the kind of work voters stampede to hail.

Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand, is every ounce that type of film, certainly when it comes to the editing. Just as John Seale’s cinematography works give us a clear sense of space, Margaret Sixel’s editing works to give a clear sense of organic movement, even when it’s thematically cranked up on nitrous oxide. So much of the work goes towards putting together action sequences in a coherent, but relentlessly exhilarating, way, but this film isn’t concerned with pushing us impatiently towards conclusion. It finds the perfect rhythm between razor-sharp moments of intense mayhem and long moments of unnerving calm and emotional release. It’s the kind of work this category exists to acknowledge. I feel relatively safe in predicting it.

Will & Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Really Win: ’71

Film EditingDream Oscar Ballot

  • ’71
  • Carol
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Magic Mike XXL
  • White God

Runners-Up: 45 Years, Eden, JoyMacbeth, Tom at the Farm

Mad Max: Fury Road is an inevitability of my dream film editing lineup. It’s hard to resist the razor sharp, vigorously disciplined momentum of Miller’s film, which would make a fine companion for ’71. Yann Demange’s Belfast thriller builds a sense of horrifying intensity not by ramping things up relentlessly, but coiling the viewer into an ever tighter focus with our lead soldier. Kornel Mundruczo’s White God is no less impressive it shifts between human and canine perspectives, and later pits them against one another without any clear moral preference for either side. There’s nothing quite as divisive in Magic Mike XXL, another refreshingly patient male stripper adventure that shows incredible sensitivity in how it directs the viewer’s gaze and attention to the concurrent, gleefully indulged gazes of others. The positively indulged gaze gets more prismatic in the non-linear construction of Carol, a dreamlike waltz through the minds of two women falling desperately, secretly in love with one another.

Mad Max - Fury RoadProduction Design

Here is where the Academy ought to have seriously resisted the urge to lavish additional praises unto the films already in their top tier. I’m not about to suggest that a film predominantly set in the wilderness can’t be particularly accomplished in its production design, but there’s a difference between economic minimalism and simply not having all that much to acclaim. The Revenant is the latter; not entirely devoid in the field of set design, but it’s decidedly not its strong suit. The world of Inarritu’s film is more shaped by natural geography than any of its shabbily thrown together man-made structure, with a giant prism of skulls and a dilapidated catholic church being the only scarred remnants of civilization. The design work isn’t nonexistent, but it’s not particularly worth acclaim, or even nominee recognition for that matter.

Another western where an outpost of civilization falls to pieces, The Martian has a bit more to go on in the way of constructed sets. However, this being a sturdily fact based story of survival, scientific achievement and global collaboration, Ridley Scott doesn’t leave much room for imagination. The space stations and program headquarters were designed for accuracy and practicality, not for creative expression or symbolic extension of the film’s themes. It doesn’t have much of a chance here, and its presence has kept more stylistically ambitious works out of the running.

At least with The Danish Girl, you can’t accuse the design of not being there, though those familiar with director Tom Hooper’s design inclinations wont be surprised by his continued fascination with distressed wallpaper of the early 20th century. Its lavish halls and mansions of high society and scorched, dilapidated buildings representing its characters’ emotional declines and places of social depravity are just as ornate as his work on Les Miserables and The King’s Speech, though that’s perhaps the big problem. There’s little differentiating the look of 1920s Denmark, early 1800s France and WW2 era Britain, each set within differing cultures and eras, but each coloured with a distinctly aged British sensibility.

Bridge of SpiesOne thankfully couldn’t accuse Steven Spielberg’s films of lacking in period or cultural specificity, though they’re all imprinted by his signature, sleekly fashionable style. Always one to build his core themes and ideas into the design of his films, Spielberg’s work on Bridge of Spies is markedly similar to his work on Lincoln, for the which his designers won an Oscar for. It’s about building a space for characters to move around in as they confront one another. In the most intimate way, movement and position, in the room and in the frame, is as significant a gesture of combat as the characters’ words, and the sets are designed with that in mind; to be both theatrically dexterous and to aid Spielberg’s visual dynamism.

I have a suspicion that Bridge‘s understated qualities will earn it the win, but the Academy tends to prefer their production design winners to be wild and extravagant, and this year Mad Max: Fury Road fits the bill. It’s a little ironic, given that there’s only landlocked location in the film, Immortan Joe’s grotesquely utilitarian, carnivalesque Citadel, but the film is shaped less extensively by its locations than the vessels propelling its characters through them. Each character’s vehicle built specifically, and over-indulgently, to its characters’ destructively crazy personalities. These aren’t simply lumbering tankers built to last, but built to impress and overcompensate. They’re extremist vehicles, decked out with protruding spikes and makeshift skull symbols. It’s lean and very nearly minimalist work, but it’s crucial in lending this road movie a specific sense of place, even beyond brittle, unforgiving salt of the desert.

Will and Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Really Win: Paddington

Production DesignDream Oscar Ballot

  • The Assassin
  • Crimson Peak
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Paddington
  • A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Runners-Up: BrooklynCarol, The Duke of Burgundy, Jupiter Ascending, Mad Max: Fury Road

At last, a dream field with zero overlap with the Academy’s picks! Not such a great thing for this year’s lineup, but it’s a good indication of how much exciting work there is to appreciate this year. I’m surprised the year’s two most extravagantly designed films, the billowing curtains and dazzling temples of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin and the gushing gothic romanticism of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, earned no recognition from the Academy. They’d be even less likely to single out The Diary of a Teenage Girl for its warm, generously, distinctly bohemian design, much less the vivid, dioramic doll-houses, libraries and museums of Paul King’s delightful, kind-hearted adaptation Paddington. I admit A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is an odd addition to such an ebullient crowd, but it’s just as bewildering and enveloping in its own grim, dire, giddily dark-hearted set-pieces.

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