EXCLUSIVE: BAFTA and Oscar-nominated ‘The Shape of Water’ editor – Sidney Wolinsky – In Conversation

Hello Film Doctor friends.

Sidney Wolinsky is an editor known for cutting classic TV shows The Sopranos and House of Cards as well as winning a Primetime Emmy for editing the first episode of Boardwalk Empire under legendary director Martin Scorsese. 

Now Sidney enjoys BAFTA, Oscar and ACE Eddie award nominations for his brilliant work on Guillermo del Toro’s monster romance fantasy The Shape of Water.

Here the talented Canadian joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about editing the film, how he got started in the industry, along with some excellent advice to filmmakers. 

The Shape of Water editor Sidney Wolinsky
Photo by Todd Williamson/JanuaryImag
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Tell us a little bit about your process on The Shape of Water, how early did you come on to the project, etc.? You worked with Guillermo del Toro before?

Yes, I worked with Guillermo for The Strain, which he directed, and then he asked me to do this film with him. I wasn’t really involved before the project. I mean, I was sent the script and I think I had a couple of comments, but nothing significant. So I went to Toronto a couple of days before they started shooting, to get all settled, and once they started shooting, I started cutting the film.

The film is edited almost as fluidly as water flowing itself. There is such a seamlessness from sequence to sequence. The transitions are so smooth. To what degree was that all planned?

Well, you know, the scene-to-scene transitions, some of them were planned, and storyboarded, and some were just discovered. There’s only so much you get right when you do the script. You plan in advance and storyboard, then you get the material and some scenes have to be moved, from one place to another, and then you figure out how you’re going to get that transition to work.

I think one of the things that helped a lot of the transitions was the music. For example, when there’s a little foot dance, when they’re watching Bill Robinson do a number, and then that song continues through the transition, and some of the action is sort of on the beat. And then it’s in the bathroom. That was just sort of a happy coincidence. Some of those scenes were moved a little bit. When I was putting it together, I thought it could work with the music, so I tried to make that happen. The music often helped.

There were certain points that were prelaps; some of the prelaps were scripted and some worked. But you know, the completion of a film through editorial is an evolutionary process. I guess it’s survival of the fittest [laughs] some of the scenes, ultimately, do end up on the cutting floor and you work with what you have left and try to make it work.


Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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Was the music designed at the same time or did you use temp tracks? It does work so beautifully together, the flow of the music and the edit.

Well, it’s almost the same answer, in a way. Some of the things were scripted, the Betty Grable song [Pretty Baby] or the piece that was used when Elisa goes into the bathroom with the creature – those were written in the script.

We did have temp music, for example, the heist scene was originally to have period band music, like Benny Glitman or something like that, but then the decision was made that it would work better with score; so we found a piece of score and it worked very well. Alexandre Desplat did an incredible piece of music for that.

Early on, when they’re watching Shirley Temple and Bojangles do a little stair dance, we kept that going as Elisa left, and she danced to it. Or the song for the Cadillac dealership, I think it’s Summer Place, it was something chosen in the spur of a moment – because it was one of the period’s hits, for that year – and it worked perfectly, and we kept it.

Really, when you’re putting a movie together, it’s sort of a moving target all the time – you’re constantly improving it, you’re constantly getting new ideas, everyone is contributing.

And how did you integrate the live action with graphics? At what point did you get to work with specific parts of it? 

It really depended on what it was. Dennis [Berardi, VFX Supervisor] and Guillermo had a long relationship – I think going back to at least Crimson Peak, and definitely on The Strain he did the VFX – and Guillermo would be sending material go Dennis as soon as a scene was locked. Or if we knew that a shot is going to be used, we’d send it over to Dennis to start working on it. And depending on the complexity of what it was, we’d get it back pretty quickly, like if it was basic green screen stuff.

Meanwhile, my assistants would do the temp effects as best as they could in the Avid or using After Effects, and then Dennis would give us his temp version – which was, obviously, significantly better than what we could do [laughs]. Guillermo worked very closely with him, I wasn’t really involved in interfacing with Mr X [Dennis’s company].

Guillermo has incredible knowledge of VFX and, of course, knows exactly what he wants. I mean, I’d go there or I’d be there when we were looking at the various versions of the shots, but primarily it was Guillermo using the input. Some of the more complicated shots we didn’t have until later on.


Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Doug Jones in The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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What was the full post time on The Shape of Water, from beginning until locking the picture and testing it?

We started in August – the shooting started on 8 August – and we locked it around…I guess, towards the end of April. We had one test screening, we didn’t have series of previews or anything like that. But, you know, we worked on it continuously.


Despite how intimate the story is there are quite a few sub-character arcs (Michael Shannon’s, Michael Stuhlbarg’s, Richard Jenkins’s). How do you go about those on top of the main thread? And then establishing tone? How do you assemble a movie altogether?

I guess, putting a film together is like building a house. First, you get the scenes and you have to make the scenes work. The once you’ve put the scenes together and you have the transitions, once you see the whole picture, things feel different – you can notice where the pace is too slow or too fast, etc.

As far as how I work, the director usually drives how that happens. In this case, Guillermo likes to come in every day and work with the editor. So he was in my cutting room every day, working with me on the scenes. That enabled me to get feedback from him immediately and know what I’m doing. And for him it meant the scene got into the shape that he wanted as quickly, as possible.

So there were no surprises, you know? He didn’t sit through a screening of the first cut of the film and go “Oh, my God, what have I done”. And that’s a tribute to him, actually. Directors have so much on their shoulders, and for him to take time to do that, sometimes I wondered where he got all that energy.


The film is so economical. What rushes did you get? Single or multi-cam?

There was very little multi-cam. Guillermo thinks very, very visually. He designed every shot and – as you probably noticed – every shot is a moving shot. And the moves aren’t arbitrary. Every shot keeps revealing something new, so that keeps the visuals very interesting.

So, he knew exactly what he wanted and he would do some interlocking coverage. I almost never got multiple camera in the rushes.


What advice could you give to aspiring editors? How did you get into editing yourself?

Gee…how did I get into editing? Well, I grew up in Canada and went to high school in Montreal. I ended up going to a college in Boston. At the time I was a total film fanatic; there were these repertoire cinemas that had double features every day and they changed them every day. One day I’d go see Ivan the Terrible and Potemkin, and the next day Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game [laughs] And I knew nothing about making films – I had a degree in English & American Literature – and I also had no idea in the world what I wanted to do. So I thought “well I like films, why don’t I find out how to make them?”

So I got a Master’s degree from San Francisco State University, in Film, and I liked editing a lot. Before I went there, I was very interested in photography.

What I liked about editing is that it was telling a story. So I decided to pursue editing. In addition, it seemed like something you could really get a job in right away. You could get hired as an Assistant Editor with basic technical skills – so that’s what I did.

As far as advice for young editors, I think technically an entry level assistant editor position is a good place to start. Because, first of all, you learn all the technical stuff. For me, it was film, and I knew that backwards and forwards; now, it’s all digital. Secondly, you’re in that milieu. You’re sitting with another Editor, you’re seeing an Editor cut, you’re learning the politics of the cutting room, the flow of the project. And, hopefully, you’ll get an editor who’ll let you cut scenes and you’ll get feedback from.

But when you actually decide you want to cut, I’d also say the hardest transition is from Assistant Editor to Editor – you can be the best Assistant Editor in the world, but that’s what people perceive you as, so at some point you have to say “I’m going to get any editing job there is and do that”, and turn down assistant jobs. Until people understand that you’re an Editor.

You have to change people’s perceptions. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get jobs on projects that people like. You have to meet people that want to hire you again; and that’s a matter of both luck and skill. Show people that you know what you’re doing.

When you start editing, just take anything there is. Any possibility of putting two pieces of film together and getting paid for it, do it. Or even if you aren’t being paid for it [laughs]  


RELATED ARTICLE: Exclusive interview with The Shape of Water costume designer Luis Sequeira

RELATED ARTICLE: Exclusive interview with The Shape of Water VFX supervisor Dennis Berardi

RELATED ARTICLE: Exclusive interview with The Shape of Water project supervisor Shane Mahan.

RELATED ARTICLE: Exclusive interview with The Shape of Water lead creature designer Mike Hill.  




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