Film Editing Advice

In this interview, BAFTA and OSCAR winning film editor, Lee Smith, gives insight into his career and experience. (One third of the runtime is general advice; the remainder on the experience of editing the 70 mm film, “Dunkirk”)

His advice?

A film editor begins work by looking through the script before filming starts, to make sure that all scenes necessary to tell the story are covered in the script.  So beginning with that, and then editing in post-production, a film may take a year of your life.

The film editor needs to feel he can work with the director – because otherwise he is entering a year of hell.

“you’re being cast as an editor in the way you would cast a composer or cinematographer or in fact cast an actor – you’ve got to fit in with the overall picture”

Working partnerships between a director and a film editor often have longevity because it save so much time and makes it easy to know that the director will like what you like – you’ve already established common appreciations


Lee Smith’s c.v. includes editing:

  • Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World
  • The Dark Knight
  • Inception
  • RoboCop2
  • The Truman Show

Remarkably, he actually began his film career working with sound, earning an Oscar nomination for Sound, for his work on “The Piano”.

He has repeatedly worked with several well-known directors: Sam Mendes, Peter Weir and Christopher Nolan.


Creative Takeaway

1. Patience rewards.  The Director and Film Editor on Dunkirk tried out multiple recuts to make sure the pieces fell into the right place for an audience to follow the complicated timeline and multiple viewpoints (land, sea, air) of one event.  Each Friday, they screened that week’s work to themselves and to a few invited friends who weren’t part of the film’s making.

On the basis of everyone’s reactions, they would then rearrange certain elements in the following week, for reprojection and further changes.

This is a great example of trying out many different ways of producing a final art piece, and taking onboard the various viewpoints of others, until every element fitted in what felt natural ways.

2. Expertise outside your field gives you ability to work with excellence across disciplines (in his case, working with sound and then film editing).  If you look at the lives of many high achievers in the arts, you find that they are proficient in multiple disciplines, often being excellent musicians – which produces good timing (especially in comedians).

Dunkirk – the film

I found this film absorbing and immersive, even though I am not a fan of the war film genre as a whole.  A complicated film to make, with multiple timelines and in-depth characters, on a massive canvas, deservedly using the better screen definition afforded by 70mm film.  Definitely one to watch.

As Lee points out in the video interview, the director deliberately eschewed CGI, instead layering real film footage of real planes – making the whole thing more believeable.  It is a huge story of history and you see it from a variety of people’s experiences.  At the same time, you don’t feel removed from it by the years – instead, it helps you see and consider other, ordinary people’s experiences, at a time of massive uncertainty and danger.

If you haven’t already viewed this film, it is well worth viewing – as the director and film editor set out to do, it is not a typical war film with closeups of wounds and violence onscreen – but a tense thriller which keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.



One comment

  1. Most insightful and informative post. I aspire to be a film editor, And I had not prior considered reading the script as a first step in the editing process. Makes total sense though!

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