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King Of Condensed Films: Meet Chuck Workman, The Oscars' Montage Master

Chuck Workman at his editing station in Beverly Hills in 2010, the last year he created montages for the Oscars. Workman says montages today have a less highly edited style.
Damian Dovarganes
Chuck Workman at his editing station in Beverly Hills in 2010, the last year he created montages for the Oscars. Workman says montages today have a less highly edited style.

Oscar-watchers expect to see certain things every year: fabulous dresses, maudlin speeches, montages.

You know, those assortments of expertly edited clips looking back at who died in the past year, or the ones that sum up each best picture nominee in just a couple of minutes.

For 20 years, Chuck Workman created many of the Oscar montages. He likens the task to making a fruitcake.


"You don't want to have too many raisins, too many nuts," he says. "But you wanna have plenty of raisins and plenty of nuts."

Workman used plenty of raisins and plenty of nuts in his montage of the movie Babel when it was nominated for best picture back in 2007. Workman boiled the 143-minute movie down to just two minutes, which he packed with about 50 scenes.

"You're looking for a flow," he says. "What is pushing this thing forward? What is making it happen?"

Workman's montages just wash over you, says Tom Provost, a writer, director and film professor.

"In the film community, everyone knows Chuck Workman," Provost says. "As an editor he's kind of a god."


In fact, one of Provost's favorite movies is Precious Images, for which Workman won a 1987 Oscar. It's a short movie that manages to encompass the history of Hollywood film just by using montage.

"His transitions are incredible," Provost says, pointing to how Workman turns a corner in the film from musicals to horror movies. "We see this great famous shot of Esther Williams in a pool and then we get almost an identical shot from Jaws."

Workman honed his cutting skills for years making movie trailers, for such films as Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and The Terminator. Provost says you could see his skill in the Oscars' "In Memorium" montages.

"Not only could he isolate a movie in one image, but with the 'In Memorium' segments, he could really isolate a performer," he says.

But montage-making wasn't always easy for Workman — particularly best picture montages for movies he disliked. "The Cider House Rules," he groaned. "Precious."

In 20 years of making montages for the Oscars, Workman's favorite might be a 1994 salute to the people behind the scenes: gaffers, grips, dancers, dressers, even accountants. He remembered how Stephen Sondheim rewrote his song "Putting It Together" for an over-the-top number — part live, part montage — starring Bernadette Peters in a glamorous golden gown.

But those kind of theatrical, production-heavy montages are becoming Oscar relics. While "In Memorium" is not going anywhere, Workman says his style of elaborately edited celebrations of old, increasingly obscure movies has given way to newer media.

"They'd rather have Ellen DeGeneres taking a selfie," he says, with just a bit of a grumble. "What does that have to do with movies?"

Workman has not produced any montages for the Oscars since 2010. It was fun, he says, but he does not miss it. Most recently, he celebrated Hollywood history by directing a 2014 documentary called Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.

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