Frame of Reference with Editor John Lee


John Lee got his start in the industry in Australia but is now based in Los Angeles. “I work as a First Assistant Editor/ Associate Editor for Lee Smith. We have worked on many films together including five Chris Nolan films. On “Inception” I was additional editor and also did some cutting on “X-Men: First Class.” I love working on huge films but in between I’m happy to work on smaller ones. At the moment I’m cutting an indie feature.”


What got you interested in editing?

I’ve been interested in editing since I studied film at art school many years ago. Then I got sidetracked in the industry for a while. I was a stagehand and an assistant floor manager in television for a couple of years and a best boy/electrician in features, tv commercials – everything really. Along the way I was a DP on some music videos and a short film and I was a gaffer for a while too.

How did you get started in editing?

I decided to move on when a friend of mine was an assistant editor on “Fearless”, the Peter Weir film, and they needed help so I dropped everything and worked with them for free for a while. Then they started paying me a few hundred dollars. I just hunkered down and learned as much as I could. That film was cut on film so I learned how to handle 35mm and all that good stuff.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?

When Lightworks came along I did a few films on that as an assistant and then AVID. AVID seems to have stuck around better and that’s what I use now though I was first assistant on a movie that cut on final cut pro once. I had a very good FCP assistant to help out and I quite enjoyed it. I’ve basically stayed with AVID but I still miss that steenbeck type controller on the Lightworks!

Give us a run through of your editing process

I’m really feeling my way as an editor because I’ve been a first assistant for a long time so I don’t know if what I do is right. Certainly I cut on “Inception” for about 5 months while the editor I work with was unavailable. It turned out okay. I generally join all the dailies together in a sequence and watch the whole thing. I read the script to remind myself where the scene goes and what it’s about. Then I don’t agonize too much about how to start the scene I just start somewhere and cut it so that everyone who speaks is on camera which is then obviously too cutty but from there I know the scene works and I go through and  finesse it – overlapping dialogue and things like that. Sometimes it’s better to be on a reaction of another character rather than on the person speaking of course. I do all that and generally hate it so I go home feeling awful. In the morning I look at it and find it wasn’t that bad after all and, having had a rest, I can easily fix the clunky bits from the day before. Then I just keep revisiting the scene every few days to make it better.

What tips were you given that was really helpful?

The best tip I got was from my father-in law, Bob Jones, who used to cut for Hal Ashby and Warren Beatty amongst others. He said ” cut to what you want to see, when you want to see it.”

How organized are you?

I’m very organized because that is how you have to be as an assistant. It helps to have tested everything at the start of the show and to save all your settings and organize your workspace so you can find things easily.

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?

I haven’t really tried to work without a script but by the same token if the footage is going a different way than the script I’ll go that way.

What is your favorite film? Favorite Tv show?

My favorite films include the Bourne films, “Bladerunner” and “The Thin Red Line.” my favorite TV includes “Justified”, “The Walking Dead”, “Life”, “Southland”, “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.”

What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)

I work on features mainly. I was Associate Editor on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and First Assistant Editor on BATMAN BEGINS, THE PRESTIGE and THE DARK KNIGHT amongst others. I was Additional Editor on INCEPTION and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?

I’ve met plenty of editors. I don’t think there are any that spring to mind that I’d like to meet.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Complex edits should be broken down and you should work on a bit at a time. When I was additional editor on “Inception” my brain could have exploded if I’d stopped to look at the big picture. I focused on individual scenes and just kept adding till it all worked.

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?

I like the audio suite plug-ins like D-verb.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

I figure it’s the directors film and if they want to do something I don’t agree with then they can.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

I try not to take things personally. Directors have a huge weight on their shoulders so if they are sometimes difficult, it’s understandable.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

Don’t be confusing. Keep an eye on geography. Keep it simple!

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

You should make each cut for a reason, not just because you can.

You can find John on twitter.

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