Vanilla Sky: The Art of Editing

In the film Vanilla Sky, David Aames is terribly scarred, his face mangled, and his spine and arm shattered. The one shining point of light in his life is his lover, Sophia, who David keeps imagining is Julie, the woman who tried to kill him. He finally discovers in the dramatic climax of the film that the whole time he and Sophia have been together was just a massive dream-state in a technological afterlife. If we analyze the final 20 minute sequence from when David realizes he is in a lucid dream, to the very end, we can see several trends in the editing of the film, particularly ones that are dependent on the Soviet Montage (or Intellectual Montage) style of editing. As we take a close look at the film, we can examine many facets of the editing through the following question. What was the style of editing? How does the editing affect the acting? How does the editing affect the cinematography?

The majority of editing within this film (especially within the final sequence) is largely based on a modern interpretation of the Soviet Montage style, structuring the editing around conveying ideas through quick flashes of images, rather than relying on the standard Hollywood continuity style. The film incorporates many cutaways and flashback sequences, which is very much present in the final sequence. As David is in the elevator with Edmond Ventura (Tech Support), they are recounting what really happened after David’s accident. During this scene, Edmond’s dialogue carries over most of the scene as voice over, but the montage of images shown about David’s life are compelling and telling in themselves. So much that if we were to turn the sound off on this scene, then we could completely understand what was transpiring. Another example is when David jumps off the building in his “final moment of choice.” When David jumps off the building, we see a rapid montage of images, some going by so fast that we can’t even consciously decipher what they are. If you slow them down, we see they are old still photographs, album covers, and some flashbacks from within the film. This is done intentionally to resemble the saying, “When you die, your life flashes before your eyes.” When this is inter-cut with shots of David Aames falling from a hundred story building, it allows us to feel the action more clearly.

The film often used transitions such as bursts of white light. For example, the second to last shot is one of David Aames falling from the building, and as he approaches the ground, we slowly fade up to white. This was done to resemble the dream aspect of the film, that you never hit the ground when you’re falling in a dream. From there, we cut to the last shot, which is an extreme close up of David Aames’s eye. I believe this final cut was done for two reasons. The first being that the opening of the eye conveys that something new and amazing is ahead of David, and his life is just starting now. By not showing us anything else, we are left to create our own interpretation of David’s life and the future. Also by leaving this opening, it allows for a sequel.

Despite the frequent quick montages, the film often uses long takes in the editing of scenes. This was because during the ending sequence, the characters are reviewing several complex revelations in the plot. If the editing was rapid and quick during these scenes, the audience wouldn’t be able to process several key factors of the plot. For example, in the elevator scene and on the rooftop, the editor uses several slow and long takes so as to give the audience a chance to digest the information. The few exceptions are dramatic, action moments, such as when David is trying to escape from the guard and calling out for tech support, and when he jumps off the building.

Towards the beginning of the film, the structure of the editing relies on following David Aames’ eye line, what he sees, and especially what he is dreaming. This has very little to do with the cinematography, or camera placement, because it relies on short takes. As the film progresses, the editing depends more and more on what David is thinking. The editor uses quick flashes to convey ideas, similar to P.T. Anderson’s editing in Boogie Nights. The takes are sometimes so short that the editing follows more along the lines of subliminal messages.

One tricky and remarkable piece of editing is when David flashes back to his suicide. He falls down to the floor, but just before he hits the ground, we cut to a POV shot of the car (from earlier) hitting the ground, and then we cut back to David lying on the floor of the motel. This dramatic and jarring cut helps us feel the impact of David falling to the floor. This would be a prime example of how editing can convey subjective movement. A simple edit would just be to show David falling to the floor, but by cutting to the car hitting the ground, we are affected by the impact, and understand David’s experience.

One way the editing affected the cinematography was that we would cut in the middle of a moving shot, to a stationary reaction shot, and then back into a moving shot. This would sometimes be distracting in that, it would take us out of the picture, and then we would be more aware of the film as a two-dimensional experience. As opposed to a dissolve or a wipe, this does not serve the narrative, but rather stutters and stalwarts it. However, then there would be other instances to draw us back in, as if the film were trying to actively include us in it. One example is the scene when David leaves the elevator screaming for Tech Support (*see next paragraph for details).

How does the editing work with subjective movement? One prime example of this is when David runs out of the elevator screaming for “Tech Supporrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrt!” As David runs out of the elevator, the shots are violently moving around him. The camera swerves constantly, and the editing is composed of short takes, united by the sound of David screaming. Then there is a sudden jolt as we cut to a stationery shot of the opposite elevator opening up. This is a very unique and dramatic editing scheme which conveys the confusion David is in, and the sudden cut to the stationery shot is a signal to the audience that a calming answer has finally arrived. This draws us into the film because we understand what David is feeling, and at the same time, we are observing through the camera what he is feeling. So the editing helps us to understand the action on multiple plains. This is another aspect of the use of editing to make the audience physically feel the film, similar to when David is falling off the skyscraper at the end.

How did the editing affect the acting? The editing had a superb affect on the acting within the film. The editing chose some amazing performances, and manipulated them miraculously, so that they all interacted with one another. Many of the shots are single shots of the performers, and in some films, this would make the actors seem like they were distant and separated from one another. However, the editor successfully edits the performers together so that the characters interact with one another, and are able to milk the emotions from them. Edmond Ventura is almost never seen in the same shot with other characters, except for wide shots, and yet his performance with the other actors is flawless. Another odd use of editing was how the actors looked at the camera at least twice in the final sequence, in moments that could have been easily cut out. Instead, the editor chose to keep those moments in, and by planting them earlier in the film, made the accidents less awkward. This also made the situation more dream-like.

An interesting aspect of Vanilla Sky is that the style of editing and cinematography changes throughout the film. I would be remised if I didn’t speak about it. To reflect the mood, and dreamlike tone of the film, the editing often changes erratically, in both pace, and method. Using transitions from white flashes in some parts, and then quick cuts in others, we are often in flux over the actual story until the very end.

In conclusion, we see that the editing has created a unique tableau of a film. Vanilla Sky is a massive continuous dream sequence, and although we do not find that out until the very end, this plotline allows the director and editor to justify many of the irrational cuts within the segment because we are essentially in the mind of David Aames. In addition, throughout the movie, there is no concept of reality, even after he is told it is a dream. The reliance on the Intellectual Soviet Montage style allows the viewer to understand more about the characters than would be normally accessible through continuity style editing.

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