Edit This!: Cutting Spielberg's 'Lincoln'
Issue: November 1, 2012

Edit This!: Cutting Spielberg's 'Lincoln'

HOLLYWOOD — Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated Lincoln, which arrives in cinemas this month, represents the latest collaboration between the prolific director and his film editor Michael Kahn, ACE, whom he’s worked with for more than 30-years.

Kahn has won three Academy Awards for the Spielberg-directed pictures Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). 

Now, the graduate of Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School comes full circle historically, cutting this new feature based on a portion of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

The film, written by Tony Kushner, focuses on the last four months of Lincoln’s life — this includes the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment, which permanently ended slavery, and the Union victory in the Civil War. Daniel Day Lewis stars as Lincoln, with Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley and Bruce McGill in key roles.

“The ideas, the concepts in Lincoln — they’re all about America,” says Kahn. “We all felt very patriotic working on it, and I learned so much about history; audiences will, too.”

Lincoln was shot on 35mm film and cut on Avid Media Composers, marking just the third time that Kahn has edited digitally for Spielberg. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was the first Spielberg feature he edited on Avid, and War Horse the second. “Steven saw how efficient it was, how it saved it a lot of time, so we’ve been on Avid ever since,” says Kahn, who was noted for his speed on the Moviola and KEM.

Kahn likes “not having to go to the trim box to get a trim” when he cuts on Media Composer. “You push a button and see the scene. Access to material is much quicker, so you’re able to make decisions much quicker. We can’t wait to see how a scene will turn out, so if we can see it faster and make decisions faster, it benefits us.” 

Kahn credits his assistants on Lincoln, Pat Crane and Sarah Broshar, with handling many of the technical details of the post workflow, which “allowed me to concentrate on editing. Steven wanted me to think about the film with him, not run the edit room.”


Lincoln was shot primarily on location in the Richmond, Virginia, area. Four Media Composers, on Unity shared storage, were installed in the cutting room. There was also one, not on Unity, in Kahn’s custom-made editing trailer on the set. Dailies were flown to the lab at Technicolor PostWorks New York, where they were processed and telecined; selects were also printed and color timed with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, ASC, who had established the color directive early on. Dailies were color timed to match the print and sent to Richmond on a hard drive.

Crane and Broshar ingested the dailies into the cutting room’s four Media Composers and took the hard drive to Kahn’s trailer. “We made sure that there was always the same data on the drive going to the set as on Unity,” says Crane, who has assisted Kahn for more than 25 years. “The drive containing Michael’s work was put back on Unity at the end of the day, so all the dailies and cuts were mirrored between the two systems. That meant that Michael could work in the cutting room and on the set as well.” 

Having teamed with Spielberg for more than three decades, Kahn enjoys a unique relationship with the director, which cutting on-set only enhances. “As soon as I have something to show him, I’ll put up the material and Steven comes in,” says Kahn. “Running the dailies with him is always very exciting, especially with Lincoln.”

Working alongside directors, Kahn has learned to be “a listener. I try to get into the director’s head and get a sense of where he wants to go so my cut will be close to what he’s looking for,” he explains. “With Steven, I can get a sense of what he likes, where he wants to go by watching him look at the dailies. He gives me good clues.”


Much of the challenge with Lincoln came from lengthy dialogue sequences, Kahn reports. “Steven and I looked at the dailies of Lincoln giving a long speech to his Cabinet. Daniel’s performance as Lincoln blew us away. We kept asking each other, ‘What [take] do you like?’ Making those decisions was very difficult. We tried not to cut away that much... to stay with Lincoln as long as possible. There were a number of scenes where we did that with Lincoln or another character to capture the performance. 

Sometimes editing is about deciding when not to cut. It’s about looking at all the choices and deciding to stay with something, letting it play out.”
Keeping the fluid camera work unbroken during a scene in Congress was another example of deciding when not to cut, he notes. “Steven wanted the camera moving unobtrusively — it was so easy to watch and follow, an amazing job.”

The editor admits that he’s never cut a film comparable to Lincoln before. “This picture has more dialogue, more getting into people’s heads. A lot of editors say dialogue is the hardest thing to make work, and after Lincoln I have to agree. Audiences won’t see our decisions to cut or not to cut, but the decisions are there.”

By editing simultaneous with production,  Kahn completed the first assembly by the time Spielberg wrapped. “Michael likes to cut day-for-a-day. They shoot a day, he cuts a day,” says Crane. But “Michael and Steven are never finished with a cut,” he chuckles. “They’re constantly going back over scenes.”

Kahn concedes that point. “Even on the dubbing stage, we’re still debating whether a particular scene should be in or out,” he says. “Steven is always very attentive to every picture, but Lincoln is such an American film — it’s all about us.”

Once Kahn locked his cut, Crane and Broshar sent EDLs to Skywalker Sound (see page 34 for an interview with the film’s sound designer, Ben Burtt) to commence audio post, and EDLs and QuickTimes to Technicolor Hollywood to start pulling the negative and assembling the DI. Spielberg and Kaminski participated in the final color sessions with dailies colorist Mike Hatzer and colorist Chris Jensen. Andy Nelson and Gary Rydstrom mixed on the dubbing stage at Fox.

“Michael and Steven were still making changes during the mix,” Crane recalls. “The two of them are always thinking about the picture, always working to make the movie the best it can possibly be.”

“I think audiences will be surprised by Lincoln,” Kahn predicts. “Steven really made Abraham Lincoln and his times come alive. It’s never boring. It’s really a fascinating study of freedom.”