A sound editor before he transitioned to picture editing, Dunkirk‘s Lee Smith has spent decades honing his ability to produce an elevated cinematic experience for the eye and for the ear. That immersive experience with sound has been critical for the two-time Oscar nominee when it’s come to the films of Christopher Nolan, one of those filmmakers who is keeping the process of shooting on film, as well as the theatrical experience of viewing films, alive.
With Nolan since Batman Begins, Smith saw in Dunkirk the fruition of his desire to take on an epic World War II story, a film occurring across sea, land and air which is perhaps one of the most immersive war films ever made. Below, Smith discusses his collaboration with Nolan and shares the films that inspired him as he came of age, which explain why he fits effortlessly into the director’s creative cadre.
As a regular collaborator of Christopher Nolan’s, what personally compelled you about this story?
I’ve always been very fascinated with World War II stories. My favorite films when I was growing up were Battle of Britain, and Bridge on the River Kwai, and all these movies that my father used to take me to. The epic, sprawling nature of these war movies is incredibly interesting to me, and how people react under these larger-than-life circumstances.
What is Nolan like as a collaborator in the edit?
The way that I work with Chris is, I arrive a few days before they start shooting, and then I’m on for the entire shoot, and obviously the post process. I add everything together, kind of how I see it, because Chris doesn’t look at any of the ongoing cuts while he’s shooting. He trusts me if I’m feeling that everything’s working, and we’re getting what we need. He’s much happier to concentrate on the shooting than thinking about the cut per se.
We watched dailies every night to check the footage, and occasionally he’d mention things about what he was thinking, especially if something deviated slightly from the script. But in general terms, we’d just be watching it, realizing that when we do finally get into the cut, we can change it all anyway.
That’s kind of the process. I think he really liked to see what I’d come up with first, because it wasn’t always what he was thinking. He likes that approach, where you can see how someone else is viewing the footage. Then, we’d work together and come up with the final product.
What preparations did you go through as you embarked on your journey with Dunkirk?
For a lot of films, I might read books on the subject matter, and for Dunkirk I read a couple of books about the evacuation, just because I’m interested. Really, the script is your blueprint for the movie, and I was reasonably familiar with the story, but it was fun to read some more defined, detailed books that were about the whole Dunkirk evacuation.
But I kind of do that on any historical films that I’ve worked on. I did a lot of reading on Master and Commander. I read like 22 books from Patrick O’Brian, just because they were amazing reads, and you feel that you’re historically competent. It’s not a test, but it’s nice to have an understanding of what’s going on.
This story is told on land, on the sea and in the air. How did this triptych structure affect you in the edit?
For a lot of films where you’ve got a scene that plays out in multiple areas of the movie, they’re still shot at the same time, and generally speaking, I would edit the whole thing as a piece and then break it up. Then, you’d have to adjust the in and the out points in the scene transitions based upon where you ended up.
But a lot of the time, it actually makes more sense to construct a complicated sequence as one piece, and then you get an understanding of where you are within the sequence. You can always refer back to it, because you can get lost as to where you are. For Dunkirk, a lot of times, I’d be editing an entire sequence together, saving it, splitting it up approximately where I thought it would split up, and then building the film from there.
The project was shot on large format film, which must be unforgiving, even for a master cinematographer. Were there any hiccups or errors in production that had to be accounted for?
We were developing and processing the whole time we were shooting. We were in Europe and we were processing the film at FotoKem in Los Angeles, so there was a bit of a time delay, which is always nerve-wracking. Having said that, it’s like any film—you get the odd technical error, and you deal with it.
We’ve been cutting film forever, so you can get technical and physical things that happen, but a lot of times they happen and you sort of go, “Wow, that actually looks cool.” There may be a little bit more jitter on the camera mount than you would have hoped for, but it makes it look exciting. It’s very real and very organic, so it’s a very cool process.
Dunkirk is oftentimes quite a tense experience. How did you augment tension through the cut?
This film was obviously a much more visual film, so a lot of the tension was in how long you would hold a shot to start to feel that. The soldiers were exposed, or just the general vibe of being left alone, or arriving back at the beach when you thought you were saved, but now you’re not. The ship that you went to sunk. All those things are just endlessly being tuned in the editorial process to just make sure that we had that sense of dread and suspense. Then, a little bit of relief because you’ve got to engage [audiences] to the point where you just can’t bear it anymore. And I think we took it to the end of bearing.
Do temp tracks or sound effects make their way into your early cuts?
No, we always build the cut without music, and then we apply it. It’s never reverse engineered. We don’t change the cut to the music. Everything is tailored to the cut. Other people have different processes, but ours has always been to make the movie work, and then apply everything else, rather than find some music and then make your movie fit the music.
What was your approach to the film’s action sequences, where you’re working with explosions and artillery fire?
You just edit everything so it’s understandable, it’s exciting. I think you’ve always got to put the story first. You’re always trying to get an emotional resonance to what you’re looking at in the story. Mindless action is one of the most boring things I’ve ever really watched. You sort of sit there and go, “Well, that was great, but why did that happen?”
You’re always trying to keep a narrative to the action, and people will always go with you if it looks real. And, in fact, all of the action in Dunkirk was shot practically. I think audiences can tell.
Early in your career, you spent a great deal of time working as a sound editor. How has that experience informed your approach as a picture editor?
I think sound is an incredibly important and emotional part of the film. I have a lot of experience in sound design that I used to apply as I transitioned into film editing from sound design. I took all of that with me. As I do on every film, I’m building each sequence and applying sound into it—not at the level that we finally achieve, obviously. That’s a whole group of other people, but I still heavily illustrate what the ideas are as we go. Because we have to screen for ourselves a lot before we actually move into the sound world.
So, a lot of the ideas that happen in the editing room are very much translated into the final product. I love dealing with sound and it’s second nature to me. Dunkirk was obviously a great win for sound, because a lot of it was about the sound.
What is the shooting ratio like on a project of this scale?
There’s always a lot of footage on the floor—there’s just the ratios of what you’re shooting, and the amount it takes. But I can tell you, I don’t think we dropped a single scene from Dunkirk. I don’t exactly know what the ratios are. But, for example, there was probably 30 hours worth of airplane footage shot, and possibly only ten minutes of that aerial footage in the film. You’ve got to shoot a lot of stuff to get those moments, especially when you’re doing it for real. It takes a lot of time.
The proportions are enormous, because there’s a lot going on, and those IMAX cameras chew through footage.
What was the biggest challenge you faced with Dunkirk?
I think probably the biggest challenge was working out exactly where the little shifts arrived, and the timelines intersected, because the little shifts were the big emotional change for the film. That was where you had an amazing amount of release, and tuning exactly where that happened took some time. [Finding] where the timelines intersected also took some time because it was filmed in such a way that we could manipulate that point of intersection. It was a complicated film. I’d like to say it was all easy and we did it right, but it was a very detailed and complicated thing to get to that final product. So, you know. Nothing’s ever easy in this game.