Editing an Oscar Winner – Crash


Winning an Academy Award is definitely a high point in any film editor’s career, but Hughes Winborne didn’t pursue the typical career path to pick up the Oscar for Crash several Sundays ago. Following stints as a paralegal and a house painter in Raleigh, North Carolina after college, Winborne decided to join one of the summer film programs at NYU. For six weeks he was immersed in 16mm film production and post-production. Realizing his love, he moved to New York where he quickly moved from being a production assistant, to an assistant editor and then to an editor on small film projects. After some steady work on industrials he ended up as an editor at CBS’ 48 Hours.


I had a chance to interview Hughes in the week following the Awards telecast. I caught up with him on his drive to work on the current film he’s cutting, Pursuit of Happiness, starring Will Smith. That’s right, work does go on even for Oscar winners! Hughes explained how he made the leap into features, “48 Hours was a great place for me, because it was there that I migrated from tape and film-based editing to nonlinear editing. I was also able to take some time off to cut some low budget indie features – usually for little or no money. Then I was always able to pick back up at CBS. It was after I cut Sling Blade that I was finally able to work regularly on features. I moved out to LA and have been working here ever since.”


Cutting Crash


The film Crash is truly an editing challenge. It’s a story that intertwines the lives of otherwise unrelated characters from different ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds over a 36 hour period and examines fear and bigotry from multiple perspectives in the urban world of post-9/11 Los Angeles. Crash was directed by Paul Haggis (producer/writer on Million Dollar Baby) and stars an ensemble cast including Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Terrence Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe and Larenz Tate.


“Paul shot Crash pretty quickly – in about 35 days, since many scenes were filmed multi-camera,” Winborne explained. “We had around half-a-million feet of film, which is quite a lot for a film that isn’t an action feature. I cut this on an Avid version 7.1 Film Composer. That’s an old machine by today’s standard, but still a real workhorse. I was lucky that this was a very tightly scripted film. Although there’s a lot of editing in this film, I didn’t have to do any editorial sleight-of-hand to fix story problems. It took seven months to get to a locked cut and in the end the director’s cut was only about 15 minutes shorter than my original first cut. Most of that was tightening and a little bit of re-arranging. Paul and I used a system of index cards for each scene with color coding for the various characters. This allowed us to quickly scan the wall and see whether any given character had been off screen for too long of a time. This visual flow helped us in doing the small degree of scene rearranging that was done. Most of this was in the third act of the film. Fortunately, as complex of a film as this was, it was well-scripted, well-directed, well-shot and well-acted, which really made my life easier. That’s very important for indie films, because there generally is no money left in the budget for reshoots to fix problems that become evident during editing.”


Since Hughes had also cut Sling Blade, I asked him to contrast the two experiences. “That was Billy Bob Thornton’s first film as a director and he really preferred to stay with master shots rather than use coverage. Although I certainly got editing work because of this film, it isn’t a film you remember because of the editing. People tend not to notice how a film is cut unless the editing is flashy.  That does not mean a film with fewer cuts is less challenging. More often the reverse is true. As an editor it’s important to know when not to cut. Billy Bob frequently had me stay with a master where I had made a cut to pick up pace. Judging by the success of the film, I would say he was right.”


Technology and the Cutting Room


Hughes Winborne has been cutting nonlinear for many years, mostly on Avid systems. He really appreciates the support he gets from the changing role of the person often called the assistant editor. “I really don’t like the term assistant,” Hughes interjected, “I prefer to consider that role as an editing collaborator. I worked with Sean Hubbert on Crash and I really leaned on him to handle all the highly technical tasks that go on in today’s editing environment. Quite frankly I couldn’t do his job if I had to. The so-called assistant editor has to deal with loading in dailies and file information, outputting film lists and dealing with all the conversions necessary for tape and tapeless review-and-approval copies of scenes. On the current film, Pursuit of Happiness, we are using two Avid Meridien-based Film Composers, Avid Xpress Pro and shared storage, so our ‘edit room collaboration’ includes two assistants and a runner, in addition to myself.”


Crash went through a 2K digital intermediate finish and although I wasn’t able to get a definitive answer, it may well be the first domestic film to win an Oscar for Best Picture that went through a complete DI. iO Films in Burbank handled the film scan, assembly, color grading and film-out negative recording. With the help of Crash’s director of photography James Muro and his camera operator Dana Gonzales, Winborne, Haggis and Hubbert supervised any color-grading tweaks with iO Films colorist Adam Hawkey. The hand-off between creative editorial and conforming is very critical. iO Films uses a proprietary software application called I-perf to convert the Avid lists into scanning lists to recapture the film negative to 2K data files. Then conforming and color-grading is handled on the Nucoda Film Master workstation with a final negative recorded out to film on an Arrilaser film recorder.


Changes in Editing


As Hughes approached the end of his commute, he offered some parting thoughts on the advances in editing technology, “I’ve cut on a number of different systems, but I really like the portability that the new systems offer. On Pursuit of Happiness, I didn’t cut in an ad hoc edit suite on location. Instead, I have Avid Xpress Pro loaded on my 17″ PowerBook and spent a couple of days a week cutting at the director’s house in San Francisco with an extra FireWire drive and external monitor. It was lots of fun! Changing your geography gives you a new way to look at things. Now I do a lot of cutting at my house with my laptop and FireWire drives and go into the cutting room only when necessary. The editor is no longer a shut-in!”


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)