Editor Sidney Wolinsky shouldn’t be overlooked this awards season.
When a film has the remarkable story of love and humanity that The Shape of Water has, it’s hard to pay attention to the other cinematic elements that help bring it to life. Guillermo del Toro creates a wonderful world for the audience to float in with the beautiful look of the film and its endearing characters, but something else struck me when I saw The Shape of Water in theaters. I couldn’t put my finger on what made me so immersed in each scene, but then I realized it wasn’t the scenes themselves. It was the transitions between them that made this a moviegoing experience unlike any I have had before.
The editing of a film is one of the last things most audiences consider, but done badly it can ruin even the best stories. The scenes we watch are the essence of a movie, but how we get to each one can change how we perceive them. The Shape of Water editor Sidney Wolinsky didn’t just place the pieces together, he created seamless transitions between them, hijacking the storytelling in the best way possible.
One way the editing contributes to the feel of the film is the delicate choice to cut into a scene with a character’s movement. There is never a static moment in the beginning of a scene. If the characters aren’t in the middle of walking into a frame, then the camera is gliding on a dolly, always leading us further into this tale. We are never dropped into a scene, but guided into all of them. This kind of seamless movement helps bring scenes together and also builds the tension in some of the climactic moments of the film. The cuts that could have been chosen to jar the audience, creating tension in a different way, are still in tune with the characters’ movements and make a continuous scene of action.
Wolinksy begins every scene with movement, and he also ends scenes with the punctuation of action from characters, as well. Whether it be the slam of a briefcase or the click of a clock, ending on a sound gives a satisfying ending to a scene, especially when followed by a similar sound. Several times Wolinsky carries the sound from one scene into the next, like the thumping of a bed frame in a bedroom to the lab where they’re holding the Amphibian Man.
While in theory these cuts seem pretty practical ways of creating continuity between scenes, they are done with such precision they become remarkable editing techniques in tune with the tone of the story. These editing choices especially fit the story when you consider the musical element of the movie. There is a musical number, but Eliza dances throughout the film. It feels even more dreamy when the camera and transitions hold the same sense of choreography that the actors do. In an interview with ProVideo Coalition, Wolinsky admitted to timing cuts to the music in the film like in the scene below.
Yet, there are still artistic transitions throughout The Shape of Water. These transitions Wolinksy attributes to del Torro’s role in choreographing cuts, which Wolinsky describes here:
“Obviously there are the ones that were clearly designed by Guillermo like where Strickland is sitting in the car and you rack focus to the water on the windshield and then dissolve to the water in the bathtub. There’s the one in the bus when that song is playing and the water droplets turn into this abstract thing and then it goes to her feet. I like that one you mentioned with the montage ending with the paper towel dispenser being closed. I like the one at the end of the heist where Strickland is standing on the edge of the empty tank and he hits it with his baton and we cut right to Sally Hawkins opening up the shower curtain. I think that’s a really dynamic cut. With a lot of the great cuts — the in and the out were designed by Guillermo. I’d love to take credit for them, but many of them were all him.”
Del Torro’s involvement with the editing process certainly helped blend scenes together, serving the story and the overall look of the film. The motif of water isn’t left out of the editing room. Hidden cuts in transitions between scenes follow the movement of water, such as raindrops on a window or the bubbles of boiling water. There is a beautiful kaleidoscope transition and unexpected wipe within the practical cuts. My favorite transitions juxtapose gruesome, violent images with cuts to food. Wolinksy and del Toro’s editing choices prove you can be creative with transitions between scenes while also using them to serve the story.
There are many aspects of The Shape of Water that deserve wins this awards season and Wolinsky’s work as the editor is definitely one of them. Even if you didn’t notice these cuts when watching the film the first time around, hopefully reading about them will help you watch the film in a new light.