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Oscar Race 2018: 5 Editing Contenders Experiment with Unusual Storytelling

Will the boldness of "Dunkirk" prevail over the unconventional "The Shape of Water," "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri," "I, Tonya," and "Baby Driver"?


Melinda Sue Gordon


There were no safe choices among the five editing nominees — “Dunkirk,” “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” “I, Tonya,” and “Baby Driver” —  when it came to subject matter, narrative, characterization, and tone. All five were daring and unconventional in exploring survival and heroism, love and beauty, revenge and redemption, violence and acceptance, music and salvation.

“Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s boldest experiment in time, space, and propulsive action, remains the Oscar favorite. Editor Lee Smith won the ACE Eddie for drama, while underdog Tatiana Riegel earned the Eddie for comedy with the dark and volatile “I, Tonya.” But Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale-infused “The Shape of Water” is the Best Picture frontrunner, which could carry editor Sidney Wolinsky over the top. Meanwhile, “Three Billboards” and “Baby Driver” have distinctive spins on the murder mystery and heist film that rewarded Jon Gregory and Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos with nominations as well.

Read more about these nominees, ranked in order of their likelihood to win:

“Dunkirk” (Lee Smith)

The key for Nolan in depicting the legendary 1940 evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches of France was to avoid any of the usual World War II conventions. For him, it was a survival thriller: a clock-ticking experiment in pure cinema with three timelines told from land, sea, and air. He approached it from a geographical point of view with shifting perspectives and allegiances.


The challenge for Smith was balancing the three timelines, sustaining tension and instilling a sense of dread in the rising and falling arcs. Also tricky was when to insert the emotional high point: the arrival of the fleet of civilian ships to evacuate the soldiers.

The hardest section, though, was managing the aerial footage involving the RAF pilot played by Tom Hardy. At first, Smith handled it like straight action, but since this was the shortest section, it dissipated too quickly. He wisely split it up and gave it time to develop. This allowed the aerial footage to play more realistically, in line with the way it was brilliantly shot in IMAX 65mm by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema.

“The Shape of Water” (Sidney Wolisnky)

Del Toro’s 1962 fable encompasses all of the storytelling elements that fascinate him. It’s a horror/fairy tale/musical/romance about a mute custodian, Elisa (Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins), who falls in love with Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). And it alternates between melodrama and whimsy in exploring outsiders uniting to rid the world of hate and oppression.

"The Shape of Water"

“The Shape of Water”

It elegantly flows like water, not too light and not too dark, thanks to the editorial skill of Wolinsky. Indeed, the set-up never stops moving, from the fairy tale-like voiceover by Giles (Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins), to Elisa’s water dream in her bedroom, to the the introduction of her work environment at the secret lab and friendship with Zelda (Oscar-nominated Octavia Spencer), to the coming of the Amphibian Man.

The three most difficult moments were Elisa’s intro to the Amphibian Man, which required fearlessness and the spark of romance; her plea to Giles to help save the Amphibian Man by appealing to his sense of humanity; and the complicated heist to free the creature from the lab. The first two honored the emotions of the performances, and the last split up the various components with optimal pace and suspense.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” (Jon Gregory)

Martin McDonagh delivered the most incendiary movie of the season, dealing with rape, murder, racism, and revenge, and propelling Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell as Oscar favorites for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. However, in trying to provide understanding and even sympathy for Rockwell’s racist cop, Dixon, the movie attracted a backlash.

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Fox Searchlight

Arguably, that’s what makes good drama, and Gregory worked hard editorially to balance the violent intensity with the dark humor and shifting perspectives. Mildred isn’t always likable for her vengeance, especially when she goes too far and firebombs the police station; Dixon is even less likable for his violent racism. Yet there’s a redemptive quality in reaching an understanding about the price of hate and trying to learn compassion.

Gregory played off Rockwell’s vulnerability as Dixon, which helped humanize him, and he crucially altered the placement of Mildred’s flashback about a fight with her daughter just prior to her rape and murder. Originally, it came toward the end of the movie, but the editor realized that it should occur much earlier so the audience appreciates the guilt that drives her rage.

“I, Tonya” (Tatiana Riegel)

Director Craig Gillespie embraced a mockumentary-like approach to his black comedy about notorious figure skater Tonya Harding (Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie, who also produced). It’s an unconventional biopic that skates between absurdity and tragedy, with Harding’s bizarre rise and fall impacted by her abusive mother, LaVona (Oscar-nominated Allison Janney), and violent husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

I Tonya Margot Robbie

“I, Tonya”


The unorthodox structure involved on-camera interviews, voice-overs, and breaking the fourth wall. The result becomes a kind of Rorschach test because you never know who to believe. Fortunately, Riegel had enough footage to evaluate which element worked within the context of the moment. Yet it all needed to be grounded in reality so it never went off the rails.

But breaking the fourth was a godsend: It provided a sense of detachment for the 45-year-old Harding talking about the violence inflicted on her by her mother as a child. The key moment occurs when LaVona accidentally hurls a knife at her daughter and they both freeze. Riegel holds on the moment and then breaks the tension with an aside by LaVona that all families have problems.

“Baby Driver” (Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos)

Edgar Wright turned the heist film on its head as a musical tour de force involving getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort). Every waking moment of his life is driven by music (to drown out his tinnitus): the appropriate track for the appropriate moment. Thus, the world falls in sync with Baby’s playlist, as everything is filtered through his point of view.

Baby (ANSEL ELGORT) is chased by the cops in TriStar Pictures' BABY DRIVER.

“Baby Driver”

Wilson Webb

Editors Machliss and Amos, therefore, had a unique experience timing everything to the precise rhythm and beat of the music. It was a symbiosis of production and post occurring at the same time. “The shot had to work for the edit and the edit had to work for the shot,” according to Machliss, who worked live on set.

The three heists had their own personalities: The first (set to “Bellbottoms”) introduces the genius of Baby’s driving skills and how music serves as his superpower. The second (set to “Neat, Neat, Neat”) begins a downward spiral of failure, and the editors had to add an insert of Baby resetting the track because the action was too long. And the third (set to “Intermission”) begins jauntily, grows more menacing, and ends horribly.

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