Having worked exclusively for the last two decades, Sidney Wolinsky returned to film of late with Guillermo del Toro’s romance, The Shape of Water, where he cut together tap dancing sequences, musical moments and a tense heist sequence, a fusion that has resulted in the editor’s first ever Oscar nomination in a career that has spanned 40 years.

For Wolinsky, there are significant creative differences between the worlds of film and television, primarily the fact that in film, “you get to really collaborate over a long period of time with the director to shape the material and perfect it.” The editor established a rapport with del Toro during The Strain, on which Wolinsky edited the pilot “Night Zero”.

In television, “there’s always a pretty imminent deadline to be made, so you don’t have the kind of time to really perfect things that you have in a feature film,” the Oscar nominee says. “I think in features these days, in most cases, you’re working with a director who is probably the writer, possibly the producer, so you’re working with the person who’s most creatively involved with the film.”

Fox Searchlight

As an editor, what opportunities did you see with The Shape of Water that excited you?

When I read the script, the musical numbers were written into it, and I love doing that kind of stuff. I liked the mixing of reality and fantasy. It had a really interesting combination of unusual characters and very unusual situations. When you’re reading scenes that really keep you interested and you know that someone like Guillermo’s going to be directing it, you can reasonably expect that the material will be good—and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Shape of Water often evokes a sense of whimsy—when you see a man sitting on a bench with a cake and balloons, waiting for the bus, you have an immediate feel for this world. It seems like the rhythm with which the film was cut had a lot to do with fostering a certain emotional effect.

Yeah, of course the details that were shot are Guillermo’s. A lot of them, like the man with the cake, make me think of Fellini and the kind of things that he would build into his stuff. Editing is a process of making choices of what you show and don’t show, and how long you show it for, and being aware that the audience is looking at everything in the frame. The director has to worry about that when he shoots, and when you’re cutting, you have to be aware of that.

I think it was very important to keep the pace up—that keeps people interested. There were a lot of pre-laps; the music often tied scenes together. For example, there’s the one with the little foot dance that starts with the Betty Grable song, and then keeps going over a montage of her waking up, which is cut more or less in sync with some of the beats, and then it buttons out into the bathroom. That kind of stuff, we looked for throughout the film.

What was the process of editing the film’s tap dance sequences?

When something is done to playback, you have a pretty hard and fast blueprint of what you can do. It’s just a decision of where you change angles, what you want to show at whatever time. The interesting part is to extend things, to keep the music going and use it for other purposes, as well. That’s the stuff where you just deal with the images you’re given and try to make them work with the song that’s continuing.

Fox Searchlight

There’s more comedy in the film’s performances than one might expect, particularly with Octavia Spencer’s Zelda. Did you have to do much to massage those moments?

Her biggest comic moment is where, after Elisa and the creature become intimate, they’re together in the hallway and she says, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. How is it possible?” Her performance there was wonderful. She really knows how to do it, and I got the performance in the master and the close-ups. I didn’t really have to construct performances in this; I just had to honor what they did, and pace it up if necessary.

Your lead character in Shape is a mute. Did that unique set-up present certain challenges?

Not really. Sally Hawkins learned American Sign Language very well, so those scenes were basically dialogue scenes. They were written in such a way that you understood what was being said anyways, even though we had subtitles, and I did try to move the subtitles close to her face or her hands, so your eye isn’t going up and down on the screen.

Then, the big dialogue scene with Richard Jenkins, where Elisa is trying to persuade him to help her and he’s saying, “You’re crazy, this is pointless”…I thought the script device where she doesn’t believe that he’s understanding her, so she forces him to repeat back to her, was a wonderfully inventive device. He was able to actually say the lines, and I was able to cut it in sync with her signage, and you really felt it was embedded in the scene. It wasn’t some kind of clunky device.

Visual geography is always a fascinating element of editing. How did you execute visual transitions where you’re moving through walls—where we pan down from Elisa’s apartment, through the rafters and down into the movie theater below?

That’s sort of a classic thing. The most famous is from Citizen Kane, where the girlfriend is forced to sing in the opera. The camera goes up over the stage, and up and up, and then you see one of the stagehands turning to the other and holding his nose.

Basically, it’s done with dissolves. Obviously, they didn’t cut a building in half. The first one is in the kitchen, with Sally there. You’re hearing the soundtrack of The Story of Ruth, and you go down and down, and the camera ends up going into blackness. Then, they probably did separately the cut where you’re going through the rafters, and that goes into blackness, and then they did a real crane down, inside the theater, and you could link those all together.

Fox Searchlight

So the crafting of this visual illusion has as much to do with lighting and camera work as it does with the edit?

Yeah, we all know that in film, nothing we’re seeing is real, in effect. The actors aren’t really dying, and so on. In this case, visually, you can’t see the transition because it’s the transition that would happen if the camera did go through the floor, which obviously it never could. It’s masked in black, and then the visual effects company probably enhances it even more, so it looks even more seamless.

It strikes me that in so many of del Toro’s films, he stuns his audience with abrupt moments of brutal violence, which are made all the more powerful when juxtaposed with lighter scenes.

That’s true—certainly of Pan’s Labyrinth, for sure.

This cinematic idea seems suggestive of a certain worldview. Do you know what the intention behind this is?

I’ve never really discussed it with him—I can only speculate that you want to keep the emotions raw. You want to keep the audience engaged and surprised. You don’t want them to be ahead of you; you want to be a little bit ahead of them, and you want them to experience the whole range of emotions. If you take a character and give him a good time, and then you get him in trouble, and the trouble gets worse and worse, and for some characters it’s fatal…I don’t really know. [laughs] But Pauline Kael’s first book was called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, if you remember that. That’s what movies are all about, you know? Violence and sex, and all that stuff.

I think there is a similarity between this and Pan’s Labyrinth. In both movies, you have a very innocent character who’s put through a lot of trials and tribulations, including death, then coming back to life at the end.

Kerry Hayes

Was the tension in the film’s moments of violence inherent to the images on display—like Michael Stuhlbarg being dragged by a bullet hole in his cheek—or did you work to amplify them through the cut?

We actually dialed back a little bit on the violence in that scene because people found that it was a little much. I think when you see stuff like that it, it viscerally grabs you. Obviously when I’m cutting stuff, I try to make it as horrible as possible, and those scenes are sort of fun to cut for that reason. I’m not a sadist—I don’t beat anyone up—but I find myself cutting all this stuff with people beating the crap out of other people, and killing people. It’s sort of an odd profession.

Which sections of The Shape of Water were the most challenging to cut?

The most challenging sections were the big heist scene and the final showdown at the canal. The heist, because there’s so many moving parts. All the characters in the movie are involved, and they’re all in separate places, all coming together. A lot of those scenes were shot together and then they were split into pieces, so the pace picked up. It wasn’t shot all at the same time, so I cut it with a bunch of “Scene Missing” banners, and then as I got the little pieces, I put it in, and finally we had everything. Then, I could really work on adjusting it and getting it all to work.