Lee Smith, ACE has cut numerous films with Christopher Nolan, including Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception (for which he was nominated for an ACE EDDIE), The Dark Knight (for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing), The Prestige and Batman Begins. He was also nominated for an Oscar for editing Master and Commander and we last spoke to Smith after he edited the James Bond film, Spectre. Art of the Cut catches up with Smith as he has teamed with Christopher Nolan again for the critically-acclaimed, Dunkirk.
HULLFISH: I don’t usually start by talking about score, but it’s very unusual and although you’re working with Hans Zimmer again, it doesn’t really sound like Hans Zimmer to me.
SMITH: Well it was. It doesn’t sound like Zimmer because you’ve probably never heard a score quite like it. Basically it was an idea of Chris’s based on using his ticking stopwatch to create a score that went the length of the movie or at least almost the full length of the movie – it always gave you a sense of the tension, so the rhythm was always giving you this amazing feeling that you just couldn’t let go and then when we did let go, we let go in a very specific area and then picked it up and let go one more time. So it’s probably one of the longest continuous cues in the history of filmmaking.
HULLFISH: What were those two places of release?
SMITH: It was released momentarily when the three boys arrived back on the beach, after the destroyer gets torpedoed, where they wait again. And then it’s finally released when Tommy is in the train and he falls asleep whilst Alex is talking to him about the fact that they’ll basically be vilified for retreating and not succeeding and it stops there because it’s kind of Tommy’s engine. And then once that’s over, the boys are basically safe from that point.
HULLFISH: That was one of those things that I felt — a continual sense of dread almost from the first frame of the movie.
SMITH: It was very carefully orchestrated. Literally the film was always designed to be the third act of a movie. You drop into the action from the first frame , no backstory. There was no let up in the sense of dread. just this burning desire for survival without all of the exposition and the dialogue that would normally be attributed to a World War II film. We didn’t have the ability to crosscut between the war room and the generals and all of the traditional stuff you’d have in a war movie.The only exposition is really given by Kenneth Branagh’s character.
HULLFISH: So often with score you can kind of sense from scene to scene, “Oh there’s the music score for that scene and there’s the music for that scene, but my sense from watching the film was that you couldn’t cut temp score for scenes because it all runs continuously from one scene to another.
SMITH: We didn’t use any temp score in the making of this movie. There was some developmental stuff there that we time stretched and used but basically the ticking of the heartbeat of the film was it and once we installed that, it never changed.
HULLFISH: The last time we talked you said Christopher Nolan did not like to hear temp in the first assembly.
SMITH: We’ve probably gone on to music quicker on Dunkirk by the simple nature that there’s so little dialogue. The film has to have that music to just keep propelling it forward. But the first assembly was literally silent. I was cutting a silent movie because even when we did have sound on those rare occasions, if it was shot with the IMAX camera sound was basically useless. So all we really had for a soundtrack was a sync guide track with the sound of a (chaff cutter?) running, which was the IMAX cameras.
There’s one shot in the trawler when it’s under attack where Alex and Tommy are inside the Dutch trawler that scene was shot with 65mm 5 perf cameras that were blimped so you can hear it in like the traditional 35 millimeter photography. But then again, parts of those scenes when they started going underwater, then they reverted back to IMAX again. So as you can imagine it wasn’t like a normal film where you’re editing wit reasonable quality guide tracks. We kind of had to make it up as we went along. I did a lot of quick, down and dirty beach sound effects and guns, then we fairly quickly handed it over to Richard King and said, “We’re so naked on this film, we can’t even screen it until we do a more sophisticated pass,” so we introduced the whole sound of the film early which is great because it was a very complicated sound job.
Everything had to have a very particular sound: from the guns to the planes. You can imagine the number of variations we went through on the Stukas it was insane. We developed that siren for a very long time before it finally got to the point where Chris was happy with it. We approached the sound from the point of view of the guys: “how they would have heard it?” rather than the reality of it, because it’s an emotional thing and if you read some of the historical reports where soldiers are being attacked they all have a different take on what things sounded like and some of them are quite interesting. It’s unusual. iI’s not the classic sort of thing that you think you normally hear. So a lot of developmental work went into that.
HULLFISH: (There’s a cool explanation of how Zimmer acheived some of the tension in the score in this article.) I noticed that there was very little dialogue and so often the dialogue drives the rhythm of the editing. So talk about how adding sound effects contributed to your sense of rhythm.
SMITH: If you can develop the sound early. It also informs the rhythm of the cut. One thing Chris was very keen to do was to show — for example — in the Spitfire sequences — just how difficult it was to shoot down another plane with that WWII technology – which I think we achieved – and a lot of that has to do with sound. We used the sound to give you the feeling that you’re riding a wild horse. Some films depict it as: you just you line up on the enemy you push the button like a video game. Those WWII pilots were just firing and the odds of hitting the plane were almost down to wind direction, good luck, and the chance that you were turning in the right direction where the German pilot might have been turning at the same time. It’s not like modern war. Basically you’re throwing rocks at something. So we wanted to try and capture that and capture all of the unique sounds that those fighters had. And I was fortunate enough to be there on the landing strip in England when we were shooting those sequences and the Spitfires and the Messerschmitts – or the ME109s – flying overhead where we were editing in a caravan right on the runway. Occasionally I’d walk out to get a coffee and they’d buzz right overhead and you’d think, that is one of the most frightening sounds you’ll ever hear just because it’s so aggressive and raw. These things were built in maybe 1936 and they’re flying today. I was so in awe of them.
HULLFISH: There’s a little featurette on how they shot the plane footage and it seems like much or all of it was shot practically, so the pilots could see the other planes and react to them. Was that easier to cut than if it had been green screen?
SMITH: My God yes. There was no green screen for the planes. I’d say ninety six percent of what you see is real photography. To everybody’s credit we all embarked upon this mission with the view that you exhaust every possible way of doing it practically before you consider a bit of CG help. So that was the plan. There’s a couple of CGI cleanups where you have to take a bit of rig off something, but you’re not watching greenscreen. It was all shot in a particular location, so it’s not shot on a stage against blue or green. So they actually shot in the air and the pilot was sitting behind the actor in a modified plane called a Yak. It’s a Russian plane and it looked just like a Spitfire but it allowed for a pilot to sit behind the actor while they actually shot in the air.
HULLFISH: So I’m sure that helped in editing.
SMITH: Oh massively, massively. There’s no comparison editing real material. I’m at work now on a new project that has a very large greenscreen component. You just have to really retrain your mind as to how to imagine what’s not there. And then when you put the effects in you have to keep being incredibly diligent about making sure the perspectives, lenses, depth of field, horizon… It’s amazing what you can get wrong.
My mantra from back to the lessons I learned on Master and Commander: no matter what you’re doing, you put camera reality into the shots. We used to drive the visual effects people crazy because they would neaten a shot up and we’d say, “No. You couldn’t get that in that frame.” You have to go with the way we shot it, because if we were in a war situation or a dangerous situation you’ve got to remember, “What would the cameraman be doing?” You’ve got to put a physical brain behind the shot. When I watch other films they sometimes have what I call an impossible camera. I also think this is perceived by the audience members and I think I can bear this out with my children who always call bullshit on shots in other movies.
HULLFISH: So in this film, you’ve got essentially three stories. You got the guys on the beach who are pinned down by the Germans. You’ve got the British Royal Air Force guys that are protecting the beach and trying to protect the boats. And you’ve got the rescuers on the small civilian boats coming from England. I’m assuming that the script and the final movie do not have the same transitions between those stories.
SMITH: Not always. This script was a very, very strong blueprint but there were areas that were modifiable. For example, the point where the stories converge – the point where the little boats arrived. All of that we played with quite extensively because that has a very strong emotional kick. We experimented with that over several screenings before we arrived at the final choice. That was the lynch pin, where Branagh sees the little boats and where the timelines converge because we have coverage basically of all the timelines we could move that convergence point.
For the rest of it, it’s just a matter of where to cut. We might take one part a little bit further and one part a little bit less. Or sometimes when we’d watch it, and we went back to a particular story line, you felt like we’d been away from too long? Because the one thing you notice, as you’re editing, is that the plane sequences can’t just go on and on. So we were very mindful of the peppering of the plane sequences. So suddenly when you come back to the plane, the audience doesn’t think, “What happened?” It was a complicated process but all of the parts were built in. No reshoots, as usual with Chris. As Chris always says: “There are a thousand ways to cut this scene but only one right way.” And then I’d say to him, “I’m really tired.”
HULLFISH: (Laughs) That’s a lot of pressure.
SMITH: Oh my God. I have to assemble the whole movie to begin with and some of that was fairly mind-numbing just to get to that first point where you can say, “So, now what do we do?”
HULLFISH: I really love the moment where those small boats arrive at the beach. That was a very celebratory moment where the pacing kind of opened up. Can you talk about developing that as an emotional centerpiece?
SMITH: With the rhythms of the film, if you put it in the wrong place it felt forced. Where it landed was where it worked the best. And we always knew he had an emotional cannon to fire. But it was a cannon that the film needed right there. You had to have that emotional rush because otherwise the tension, I think, would have probably killed some people. (laughs) It’s the same with the boys when they land back on the beach and a soldier walks into the surf and the guys build the pier out of the trucks and the guys being washed back onto the beach. That in itself was a kind of break. It was tense, but in a different way. So it was intriguing how that needed to be very carefully placed.
Then when Harry Styles sees the Highlanders and jumps up to join them as they walk towards the trawler, that’s where it all kicks off again, because now they have a way off the beach and that was another fascinating thing and musically we did work with that extensively till we found the right moments to do what we did.
I think we tried some very solemn music over it which worked… it’s weird with music because out of context, music can really work well and you’re watching a sequence and you go, “Oh my God! This is amazing! This works so well.”
But what we always do: every week we run the entire movie, because we’re making so many changes and it affords you the ability to suddenly see problems: like that thing that worked so well, no longer works in the body of the movie. You’re not ready for whatever that emotion is. I’ve been doing that for years and I love that process and it never gets boring. It’s like you just run the whole movie. Because we’ve always done enough work to get something out of it. And you get to the end of the movie. and you say, that gave me a very different feeling.
HULLFISH: So to handle all of this intercutting of the three stories, did you do any color coding or did you put scene cards up on the wall?
SMITH: We always put the cards up on the wall. But I don’t think I ever looked at them. Chris would occasionally go over and stare at them, and then we’d go to lunch. (laughs) If we were in trouble, we’d actually refer to the script. Often when you’re doing a lot of manipulation and you’re not finding your way, or something’s gone astray, you just go back and read the script in that area and you see that you made a couple of small changes that seem to profoundly send it spiraling. And those changes are so small that you kind of didn’t even notice that you were doing it. I always had the scenes up on a wall, but more for me to just find out what reel I’m in. I’m not a paper editor. I know it helps a lot of people, but I just find it’s all in front of me on the Avid. Nothing was colour coded for story. The colour coding we used was all to identify the multiple film formats (The film was shot mostly in IMAX 15 perf and 65mm 5 perf.) We had two sequences: one was an IMAX reformatted into the 65mil format which in the end that’s what we really watch the whole time. The other was 65mil formatted for IMAX. So the colour coding was all about: The original camera – what was it shooting?
HULLFISH: The way sound effects work in the torpedo scene was very powerful.
SMITH: Early on we cut that scene and handed it to Richard King. I did a rough version where we actually recorded Chris drowning (into a pillow) and I multi-tracked that into the Avid because Chris wanted to hear the soldiers gagging. And then I did what I could just roughing it in in the Avid. And then we sent it to Richard and he developed it.
You point out a very good scene after the boat is torpedoed. That was another scene that went “around the house” probably five, six, seven, eight times before we arrived at where we wanted to be. Originally it had some water movement SFX that you are probably familiar with from underwater movies. And we stripped all of that out because Chris said, “I don’t want to hear anything like that. It’s got to be new.” Not new for new’s sake, it’s just gotta be not what you think you should hear. Again, it was more a perception thing of what would those men be hearing under there. We were thinking a cacophonous sound of people screaming and dying would be more interesting. So it’s actually underwater crowd noise. Plus all of the sounds of the teacups and the mundane sort of things that were treated as they cascaded and fell and get bumped off of tables and people getting kicked in the head. Plus all of the sonic power of the hull contracting. Just basically we wanted to make it hell.
HULLFISH: Mission accomplished. Do you remember any specific sound transitions between scenes?
SMITH: From memory, most of the scene transitions we cut dead, because sometimes it was nice to be very aggressive with the stop. But there were times we carried stuff over. On the beach, the German artillery is crashing down and we carry that down to Dawson’s boat in the next scene. You can hear that subtly in the background. But because the time lines were never intersecting until the end, it seemed better to make a point of the fact that, no this isn’t happening at the same time, so the sound really only started to blend when the timelines intersected.
As with all of the sound decisions it’s all very carefully considered. It’s so funny when you see reviews and they’ll comment on the sound as if it wasn’t thought about. Trust me, you spend 700 or 800 hours on a sound stage and you contemplate everything. Chris is that guy. He lives and breathes it and he collaborates with all of us. But we’re all laser focused on this product. And nothing gets by. There’s stuff that happens in the background that is so detailed and subtle, but it all just adds to the feeling. It’s a highly reviewed process and of course, in that process, you find great victories. Things that you didn’t think of. I’m not saying there aren’t happy accidents There are always happy accidents where something will happen and you go, “Holy shit! That works! It should be completely wrong, but it works.” So we’ll take that.
HULLFISH You’ve just got to trust the process of editing, right? You need to know that it IS a process and there are stages and it isn’t all formed at once.
SMITH: Yeah. Well if you didn’t think like that I think you’d go insane because you just have to have faith that you’re going to get there. But it’s nerve-wracking. I’m completely over the moon with how the film’s being received, but we were all terrified because this is a big summer season and you’re putting out of World War II film about a little-known story to the rest of the non-European world. So you have all the hallmarks of a disaster.
HULLFISH: And there’s very little dialogue. Was it a challenge to have so little dialogue and still be able to tell a story?
SMITH: No, not at all, and when I read the script, I said to Chris, it was probably the most emotional script I ever read. What was fascinating was, it’s not so much the dialogue but there’s just a sense of heroism that’s just so quiet in the movie even when the characters are doing things that aren’t heroic. You can totally understand why they’re doing it. Like carrying a wounded soldier onto a boat just to get on to the boat. You don’t judge them. You don’t think the worse of them. It’s that they’re just trying to get home. Or one of my favorite lines where Branagh says he’s staying for the French. They got the English first. Then they stayed to help with the French. And they evacuated a ton of French people. Just those little quiet moments. I think Rylance was genius casting as the classic Englishman wearing a tie and a vest into war. I love the fact that they never refer to Nazis. You’re not seeing them. You’re being bombarded or shot at but you’re seeing it from their point of view. Peter Weir did the same thing on Master and Commander. We talked about the French ship. And I said, “We’re not shooting anything on the French ship.” And he said, “That’s not how they see it.” They’re seeing it purely as an enemy. You know there’s nothing personal about it. They’re just guys trying to kill them.
HULLFISH: Other than the German planes, that’s all you ever see. At the beginning of the movie, the guys are running away from unknown gunfire. And then when they were sitting in that trawler on the beach, waiting for the tide to come in, you never see anybody shooting at them.
SMITH: Which is how they would have experienced it. Which is why I think it’s such an interesting movie because the traditional coverage would be the German’s loading their weapons – you see their dirty point of view of the trawler – or maybe, as Tommy says in the movie, that they’re doing target practice before the trawler moves. You could have the Germans all laughing, having a cigarette, slapping each other on the back. But I think that would have released the tension. And also you’re shifting from having the experience of being there because all you’re seeing is what they saw.
HULLFISH: You never see outside the trawler at all. You never see the tide coming in and splashing up against the boat.
SMITH: Yeah that’s right. We had exterior shots but we didn’t use them simply based on: when you went outside, it lessens the tension. It was weird. It was like whose point of view was that?
HULLFISH: And the same idea when you hear the footsteps of the Dutch guy walking around on the deck of a ship. You never cut to him. You never saw him.
SMITH: Yes. Which, again, we had a shot of the Dutchman approaching the ship. But if you show him, then you know he’s potentially not a soldier.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the scenes back on the beach after the torpedo.
SMITH: You’re thinking, “how the hell do we get off this beach?” So the film always needed a breather right there. We needed to show the men in that hopeless situation. Again, a very cool moment to just calm everything down again.
HULLFISH: We’ve talked before about how you don’t use selects reels for performance. You use selects reels for action sometimes, but not performance. And this was a story that had to be told SO much through performance.
SMITH: This isn’t different from anything else. You view the footage and you pick the moments, that you really like and then if anything is debatable and you want to tune it up or down as we did in the trawler sequence, for example, you can dial it up and down a little bit as to how panicked they were and what they were thinking. But I always find just going back and looking fresh at the dailies is the way to do it because even if pull selects it’s just looking at it a different way and I always seem to find things when I have to go back and mine for what I’m looking for. So I’m still of the same mind. I’d rather go find it and take a little bit more time than just watching line after line after line going, “Well that’s a more excited read….”
HULLFISH: Well, that’s an interesting point: With less dialogue how would you even break up the selects when it’s just people thinking or expressing… How do you define one moment from the next in a selects reel?
SMITH: The performances were all there. Some takes were dialed up or down depending on who the actor was. You might find a physical thing in there that’s aiding in telling the story in some way. It’s a process of just continuously making sure you got the right thing and just amping up any particular moment that you think is working and juicing it. If you want tension, you can always juice – what other cutaways might give you something else. That’s one of the great pleasures of cutting this kind of stuff. Especially with very little dialogue, cause it really is about the looks on people’s faces, the sort of “Lord of the Flies” moments with those Highlander’s where they’re really, really looking kind of half-crazed with the idea of throwing someone off the boat. I thought that was a particularly good scene. I really liked cutting that.
HULLFISH: This may be a bit of a spoiler, but at the end of the film there’s a dramatic shot of a plane burning, then just before the credits you cut back to a close up of Tommy in the train and that’s the last shot in the film. So I love the fact that you look at the him one more time. You don’t use the big classic crane shot up from the flames. That doesn’t happen.
SMITH: No it doesn’t. The burning plane is the end of the script, but we felt we had to come back to Tommy because he is the thread of the entire film. So we tried adding him as the end sot and we both went, “Oh yeah this is the way to go.”
HULLFISH: This is another Hans Zimmer score. Did you temp with Hans Zimmer? This score does not sound like a typical Zimmer score to me.
SMITH: We only ever temped with music coming from Hans all original to “Dunkirk”. And we did temp with a modified version of Elgar’s Nimrod (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUgoBb8m1eE), which is what that end sequence is based on. That was an idea that Chris had, whether a manipulated version would still give the same emotion that he was looking for because you always do try a couple of different things just to see what the film will like and what the film will basically throw out. And the Elgar just stuck like glue. Then it was a case of blending that into the idea of the ticking metronome. Then Hans sent us a version of the Elgar that was slowed down. So all that was happening while we were cutting and a lot of back and forth. I’ve got to give a callout to our genius music editor, Alex Gibson, and his co-music editor was Ryan Rubin. Those guys were amazing. To have someone in your editing facility who has access to a million of these component tracks, I mean, they’re coming from Zimmer but they all have to be deconstructed and rebuilt. And every time we screened, the rhythms have to be recut and rebuilt. It’s truly a great collaboration to be able to do that because this score was the hardest we’ve ever done by a long chalk. To get to where we got was the hardest of any film I’ve ever worked on.
HULLFISH; Were those music editors Hans’ guys? A lot of times, composers have their own music editors.
SMITH; They’re our guys but they work with Hans. But we specifically have our own music editors on Chris’s films because it’s easier to have them with us. So you know you have direct contact with the music and then it’s all being fed back through them, then Hans, then back to us. We have this loop happening. But it allows me specifically to have more time to concentrate on the editing without having to patch up temp tracks that you don’t really want to deal with anyway. A lot of time and effort is put into the whole temp world and not all composers will be brought on to work with you so exclusively. And as I’ve always said, the beauty of not using temp music is that you’re not ever in love with something that you’re either going to do a bad copy of, which you don’t want to do. In the real world, not every film can afford it and not every composer is used to that process. We’ve got a very particular way of working with Hans. To me, music and sound effects are just a great tool and you need to be using it early to understand it. Because by the time you hit the dub stage. That’s not where you want to be hearing your music for the first time, because then all you are is grateful or disappointed. (we both laugh) I’ve been both.
HULLFISH: We’ve talked in the past about this, you and I, how the temp score locks the composer in to possibly mimicking whatever they temped with.
SMITH: You know exactly why that happens: because people temp score. Everyone falls in love with it. It’s pushing all the right buttons. The poor composer then has to do a version of the temp that nobody likes because everybody like the temp so unless you’ve got someone who’s completely reimagining something – and at this level of filmmaking, that’s not easy. You’re going to end up with a lukewarm version of what you put in. And the composer is tearing their hair out because they can’t replace that temp because the temp is now almost in the DNA of the movie now. So now you’re in this really awkward position because if you’re temping with real high quality film score music, that wasn’t easy to get to the first time. Music is part of the candy that can be applied to a movie. So when it works it is brilliant. I just saw War for the Planet of the Apes and noticed how good the score was and they really pushed the envelope on the music and it works.
HULLFISH: We talked during our last interview about the fact that you don’t obsess about your initial assembly. Your assistant editor says you cut very quickly — which is something you’ve also said. I’ve talked to other editors that say, “I have to work and work on a scene until it’s perfect before I can put it in the first assembly.”
SMITH: It’s not that I don’t obsess. I just do it how I want to do it, and I guess the word obsession would mean I would be not convinced that I was doing it right. And I’d have to keep doing it and doing it or doing it. Whereas for me, from an energy standpoint, I get it right as quickly as possible and I’m not saying that I don’t have scenes that are more tricky than others. But I’m not sitting there second-guessing my own first guess. So if obsession is that you just keep working on something until you’re happy, but to me, that feels like you’re fussing with it to the point where you might start to lose what is that initially excited you about it.
The process of the assembly is that you are going to go through the film again and again and again and again and again and again. For me, it just keeps me fresh to keep looking at it. It makes me so I’m not averse to changing things and looking at different ways of doing it because I didn’t arrive at that first cut with blood and sweat. And a lot of how I originally cut it is what is in the movie. And sometimes those are the most complicated scenes in the movie. And the ones that seemingly are simple are the ones that you end up putting 50 versions together because for some reason that scene is not doing what it needed to do. And probably the reason you keep going back to it is there’s an inherent problem with that scene. So you’re really having to hammer it to make it do what you want it to do.
HULLFISH: I think when we originally talked about this it was a discussion of: “What’s the point of working it and working it and working it as a solo scene, when you need to see it in the context of the overall movie and story and even just to feel it in the position of the scene immediately before and after it.”
SMITH: Yes that’s true too. The other reason is: that I can’t hope to know — out of order, and in my first pass — if I pick the exact right things because I’m picking the things that appeal to me right now, out of context. I mean, of course, I’ve read the script and I know what I’m doing, but having said that, the film, once it’s joined together… the quicker you can get the film together in a good sensible fashion and start watching it as a movie the quicker you start understanding where the weaknesses are.
I’ll frequently let assistants cut things and invariably they’re sweating bullets about how to start the scene and I’ll ask them if they have seen the scene before the scene they’re cutting, and they’ll say, “It’s not shot yet.” And I’ll say, “Well, then you don’t know how to start this scene, so pick whatever you want and give as little thought as humanly possible because you might be right. But the odds are you might be wrong and you’re obsessing about something that you don’t know the answer to that yet.”
You can only answer that when you’ve got everything together. And you look at the transitions and you look at: “Should I be in closeup when I start? Should I be in a wide?” and you can spend three days cutting a sequence that really you should have spent three hours cutting it because you don’t know what’s the shot you’re coming from… you don’t have it. And that’s the assembly process.
Now what will happen is when I get that next scene I’ll join those scenes immediately together and then I’ll modify the cut. I will always be recutting my initial assembly the whole way through the assembly process. I never leave anything alone.
HULLFISH: That’s a really interesting point… so as soon as you have an adjoining scene, you cut them together?
SMITH: I’ll never join two scenes together once I have the material and not be happy with what I’ve done because part of my job is to tell the director or the shooting crew for any reason if there isn’t a good cut between those two scenes. I mean that is pretty rare. It could happen, so you’re duty bound to build a film that works properly by the time you get to the end of the shooting process.
Now having said that, even with Dunkirk there were sequences – even at the end of shooting – there was still a lot of development that had to go into building the aerial sequences because as I found out, I cut some of them in much more of a Hollywood action style at the beginning. Faster cuts. And then early on we thought, “Eh, it’s not going to work like that. It’s got to be …a different rhythm has to be imposed. You can’t force this kind of action.” I had the coverage to do it, but it didn’t look right. It felt like an imposed adrenaline surge that the film just didn’t need. Now, you don’t know that until you get further down the line. I mean you’d have to be a magician to know that.
HULLFISH: So we’re back to trusting the process.
SMITH: Yeah. And you just look at the movie and go, “Okay, when we hit these aerial scenes, now they’re like something out of Top Gun.” We don’t want that. So you immediately begin modifying and slowing those sequences down and spend more time in the cockpit. Don’t do your default settings. In another movie maybe that would work, but not with the rhythms that started to be used in this movie.
I think the other thing is that you can’t be precious. If you are precious, you’ll never arrive where you need to be. I always think the mark of anyone with talent: composers or directors, is the ability to change and throw out what they’ve done when it’s not working, even if it took a really long time and a lot of effort. You’ve got to have the ability to go, “Okay, well it’s not working. Let’s have another crack at it from a different perspective,” rather than defaulting to being defensive.
HULLFISH: The aerial scenes were also another place where you didn’t see the typical editing sequence of machine gun bullets firing out of the underside of the wings and you never see the perspective of the plane from the underbelly. You never see the Germans twisting in their seats to look back at who’s firing at them.
SMITH: Exactly, and it’s a choice that makes for a different style of cutting because you have to put the planes out there. You have to understand what you’re looking at. And it’s the use of some of those very interesting camera mounts that were developed. Putting the IMAX camera upside down inside this Yak and then bouncing mirrors up through the cockpit so that they could photograph some of those points of views because you couldn’t get an IMAX camera in the cockpit. So the mirrors created these weird anomalies of jerkiness and kind of slight distortion on the picture and when I when I started seeing the footage, I thought, this is so awesome because it’s so ragged and it just makes you tense. We were trying to show the difficulty level of these pilots. It certainly helped us make it feel like these are not planes you can just line up and shoot like a video game.
HULLFISH: Lee, great to talk with you as always. You’ve been a wealth of information. Have a wonderful time in beautiful Montreal.
SMITH: Thanks, Steve. Bye.
This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber.
The first 50 Art of the Cut interviews have been curated into a book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV editors.” The book is not merely a collection of interviews, but was edited into topics that read like a massive, virtual roundtable discussion of some of the most important topics to editors everywhere: storytelling, pacing, rhythm, collaboration with directors, approach to a scene and more. Oscar nominee, Dody Dorn, ACE, said of the book: “Congratulations on putting together such a wonderful book. I can see why so many editors enjoy talking with you. The depth and insightfulness of your questions makes the answers so much more interesting than the garden variety interview. It is truly a wonderful resource for anyone who is in love with or fascinated by the alchemy of editing.” In CinemaEditor magazine, Jack Tucker, ACE, writes: “Steve Hullfish asks questions that only an editor would know to ask. … It is to his credit that Hullfish has created an editing manual similar to the camera manual that ASC has published for many years and can be found in almost any back pocket of members of the camera crew. … Art of the Cut may indeed be the essential tool for the cutting room. Here is a reference where you can immediately see how our contemporaries deal with the complexities of editing a film. … Hullfish’s book is an awesome piece of text editing itself. The results make me recommend it to all. I am placing this book on my shelf of editing books and I urge others to do the same.”