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“Omission Is a Powerful Storytelling Tool”: Editor Sara Shaw on The Climb

Kyle Marvin and Michael Covino appear in The Climb by Michael Covino (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Two best friends embark on an extensive bike ride in the south of France—one of the friends, Kyle (Kyle Marvin) is getting married to a French woman, and his best friend Mike (Michael Covino) is working up the guts to tell his friend he’s slept with the bride-to-be. Presented as one continual long shot, The Climb (also directed by Michael Covino) examines this codependent friendship in what appears to be real-time. Editor Sara Shaw takes Filmmaker through the challenges of editing continuous shots, figuring out the trajectory of a narrative and the power of what isn’t shown.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job

Shaw: I went to school with Ryan Heller, who produced the movie for Topic. He asked me to come in and help shape the movie after they had a very basic assembly (with some big scenes still remaining to be shot). Originally they weren’t even planning to hire an editor, since the movie is a bunch of really long takes. They thought they could string them together and be done. But I think we were all amazed by how much we ended up being able to reshape and strengthen the movie even while working within that limitation of the long takes.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Shaw: My goals were to streamline the film and find ways to tighten the storytelling and heighten performances within the film’s long-take parameters. It was lumpy and long in places when it was first put together per the script, allowing the audience to get ahead of the story in several spots. We wanted to try to keep them a bit unstable so they had to work to put the pieces together. Also sound is such a crucial component of this movie and needed to be built and enhanced. There was a time when we were considering whether cutting up the long takes might be a good idea, but Mike put the kibosh on that pretty quickly (and I’m glad he did). It was a fun challenge to have to find ways to shape the movie without the usual freedom of cutting to coverage whenever and wherever you want. And of course the long takes are one of the things that really make this movie special.

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Shaw: We cut out a lot of material from the ends of scenes and deleted a couple of scenes completely. We re-evaluated takes and tried to find new ways to hide cuts and blend takes. Also, because there are so few visible cuts in the film, we spent a lot of time and effort perfecting the ones that you can see. We also added titles between the sections to give the movie more of a sense of order and cohesion, and to give the audience a moment to take a breath between the chapters. Dialogue editing and ADR also became an integral part of the edit. We rewrote lines and shaped performances by using alternate takes. We had a couple of feedback screenings, but we didn’t rely on them that heavily with this film. 

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Shaw: My first real film job many years ago was in acquisitions at Sony Classics. So when they ended up buying the movie, it was definitely a full-circle moment for me.

I have a music background, and I first thought I might want to be a sound editor for films. I realized pretty quickly that picture editing was my real passion, but my sound background has been very helpful to me as an editor, particularly on The Climb. Because of the limited cutting options, we had to rely heavily on sound, music, and dialogue editing to enhance the film. These became a very integral part of the picture edit, so I was very involved in those discussions. I went to film school, and I also direct. That knowledge has definitely helped me to be a better editor, and editing for some great directors has helped me to become a better all-around filmmaker.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Shaw: Premiere. They had the footage loaded into that system when I came onboard. I think Mike wanted to be able to do some hands-on experimenting and reviewing footage, and that was the program he knew best.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Shaw: The Christmas scene is one long take with the camera tracking around the outside of the house, looking through windows. Audio was crucial to the way that scene is experienced, and it was a tricky thing to get right. Recording and spotting and mixing all the ADR was a real feat.

Blending the elements of the ice fishing sequence was tricky. It looks like one long take, but it’s actually several shots seamlessly connected. Because Mike and Kyle were actually filming those scenes on frozen Lake George in February, the footage had some tricky aspects that made it hard to blend everything together. They were limited in the number of takes they could do because they and the crew were literally freezing (especially Kyle). Those guys are nuts.

The graveyard ended up being one of the hardest scenes to choose takes on. Scrutinizing and evaluating those long takes can be really tricky and takes an enormous amount of attention, requiring simultaneous focus on details and on the big picture. We went back and forth trying different combinations of takes and figuring out how to blend them. Also figuring out how and where to end the scene and where to put the interstitial scene of the graveyard singers was tricky. 

The cutty interstitial sequences were tough because of how much the cuts stood out after so many long scenes without cuts. So it was hard to get those just right.

Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit? 

Shaw: VFX were used to blend a number of shots so they appear to be continuous. Some of those spots are fairly obvious when watching the movie, and some are hidden pretty well. We achieved some of this in Premiere, and some required extra VFX blending. This gave us some flexibility with the takes we used, so we weren’t always strictly tied to the long takes as they were shot. For example, we hid some cuts when the camera goes through doorways, when the camera pans quickly, and in some other spots you probably wouldn’t notice.

Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?

Shaw: I’ve come to realize, even more than before, that omission is a powerful storytelling tool. By removing some scenes, or the ends of scenes, we prevented the audience from getting ahead of the story. One of the film’s strengths is how it doles out information in a way that keeps the audience engaged. If viewers know too much or feel too much of a sense of resolution too early, they don’t have to work to orient themselves through the time jumps, which makes them start to tune out. It was tricky to find the right balance of just the right amount of information—not too much or too little. But withholding clarity can really make a viewer lean forward and get invested in figuring out what’s going on and what’s going to happen. Figuring out ways to keep the audience slightly off-balance was what made the film really sing. Also lots of ADR.

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