Norm Hollyn



photo by John Lee

Lee Smith

Editor Lee Smith worked with fellow Australian director Peter Weir as an assistant editor, a sound editor, and a second editor on a number of his films, including The Year of Living Dangerously, Dead Poet’s Society, Green Card and Fearless. Recently he worked as co-editor with William Anderson on Weir’s The Truman Show. With Weir’s latest film, a 19th century drama, Smith returns to work with the director as his first editor.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World follows the mission of English Navy Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) as he pursues the French ship Acheron around the dangerous Cape Horn to capture it and prevent it from sinking British ships.

Approaching the Cape, Aubrey’s ship gets caught in a ferocious storm that threatens to capsize it. The storm sequence takes place after Aubrey has spent an evening attempting to maneuver his ship into position behind the Acheron, where he can begin to attack.



Norman Hollyn: How much ahead of the start of production were you hired?

Lee Smith: Only a week, but Peter had spoken to me about two years prior to the shoot. He had advised me to read one of the Patrick O’Brian novels that he’d based the film on. In fact, I managed to read all 20 and I got hooked on them.

What sort of interaction did the two of you have during shooting?

We had dailies every day and he gave me performance-based notes, picking takes. Peter rarely looked at my cuts; he prefers to look at the film fully assembled. I think he likes to see an interpretation of what he’s shooting rather than guide every moment of it.

There are a tremendous number of visual effects in this sequence. How much of that did you lay out in the Avid?

We did as much work as we could in the Avid to make the shots work for screenings. However, a lot of what we temped in the first cut has carried all the way through to the final product — as far as ship placement, size, and condition of seas. Peter had sent a crew on the ship Endeavor that was sailing around Cape Horn and we used a lot of their footage. All the water in this storm sequence is from that shoot. On the film The Perfect Storm the majority of the water was computer-generated. We decided that we’d use actual water background plates when we could. The water sequences are devastatingly real because they are real.

How much do we know about the characters when we get to this sequence?

The storm occurs about a third of the way through the film so at this point we know Aubrey’s character fairly well. We know that he has a close relationship with his men. We know that he’s excellent at his job — he’s the Master. But we also know that he’s pushing his men and his ship beyond anything that they’ve experienced.

What’s really interesting to me about the scene is that it goes through a series of changes. At the beginning it seems like a chase. Then it evolves into an action-oriented scene about the threat from the sea. The final part of the scene, however, seems to be about Aubrey’s personal choice to leave a crewmember in the water and basically sentence him to death. So it goes from the larger elements down to something quite personal.

That’s right, and that’s the challenge of this sequence. We cut and re-cut it, mainly to get as much emotion out of the end of the sequence as we could without overplaying it. You needed to be in a certain frame of mind to get to the next sequence. The whole film is all about character with action woven into it. That’s why it’s more exciting to work on rather than a film based solely on action.

[The sequence begins after the Acheron has come up on Aubrey’s ship. However, during the night, Aubrey has skillfully maneuvered to a position behind the French boat, and is ready to attack.]

When this shot cranes around the mast, past Aubrey up on top, and reveals the other boat, it’s an amazing, “Oh my God, he did it,” kind of moment.

It should feel very exciting — it’s a huge success for Aubrey. The crew cheers on the soundtrack. We have Mr. Allen (Robert Pugh), the sailing master, proudly say, “That’s seamanship!”

And — boom — we cut to the side of the boat in heavy seas. We’re coming from an emotional high point and now we cut to a shot with a lot of energy and drive. We can see that all of the men in these shots are really having a good time as they go about their jobs.

You start wide and then move in closer and closer.

It’s for the energy. If you see a small ship on a big ocean, you don’t feel that you’re on it, and that documentary energy was important to Peter. So this tighter coverage was to bring in some shipboard life. These guys are going about the business of running the ship.

Now here we can see that they’re checking their speed. One of the crew throws a line out with knots on it, and they time it with a small timer. They count how many knots on the rope go by, then he calls, “12 knots.” This is where the expression “knots,” meaning a ship’s speed, comes from.

Did you have a wide variety of different shots of Aubrey to show emotions other than his enjoyment?

No, Peter was quite clear in his choices. So we used this hero shot where we crane around the ship and end up below Russell Crowe and his men as they hang off the side, balancing the ship. We do hear some of the men talk about how they are a little alarmed at how hard Aubrey is pushing the ship. But they’re reassured that the captain knows exactly what he’s doing.

Did you loop those lines during production? They sound like ADR here in the Avid.

We were able to loop some of the actors on location in Rosarito — everyone but Crowe. We set up a small ADR room. But, as with doing anything so far in advance of the final cut, it ended up mostly as a very good guide track. It helped the actors remember what they said when we did the real looping later on in post. My assistant, John Lee, sat down with our naval advisors and clearly identified all of the dialogue, including the complicated navy chatter, even if we didn’t get a chance to loop it.

photo by Andy Weltman
L-R: Director Peter Weir, Lee Smith, and Assistant Editor John Lee in the editing room of Master and Commander.  
   

I do a lot of sound work when I’m cutting. So when I finally did show a cut, it felt like we were on a ship in a storm and not listening to the jet engines that created the wind on the set.

Do you work with music while you’re cutting?

I do. However, Peter had me remove all of the temp music prior to him seeing the film — which is pretty bold on an epic like this. But I think it was a good decision because you start to fall in love with temp music. If you don’t use any, the scenes have to stand on their own

[Aubrey tells the sailing master that he wants more speed.]

This is getting dangerous, as you can see from the sailing master’s face when he subtly drops his expression. And his opinion, without saying it, is, “you’re pushing this ship.” He doesn’t have to say it — we can see it.

There are a lot of specific action shots here of the men working, but you don’t explain what they’re doing.

In the opening reels, there’s a “beat to quarters” sequence where you see how the men prepare themselves and the ship for action. We made sure that the life was introduced well, without explaining every single moment. In editing, I think that you just want to give everyone a taste of what’s happening — enough to interest them and then keep moving forward.

We experimented with the shots and their order to build the excitement. Like the shot with the little boy who gets knocked over by the water. That seemed to be a good indication that the storm was getting worse. I had originally started the scene with that shot, but we moved it later so we could start more with Aubrey and his enjoyment of the chase.

[Aubrey’s friend, the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), comes up on deck and Aubrey gives him a telescope so he can see Cape Horn.]

Was this footage shot by the Endeavor crew?

Yes, but the Cape was shot independently of the waves, the sky, and the sea. This is a composite.

In addition, when we were starting to build the scene, Peter actually went into his office with a lipstick camera, a video recorder and a couple of models of ships. He dragged those ships around on a piece of blue vinyl replicating water and we cut those in. We used these shots to get the ships’ action and sizing right. We gave these to Asylum, one of our effects houses, and they turned them into animatics. Each subsequent version that they did was about bringing more reality to the image so we could judge whether or not to take the shot through to completion.

Looking at the shot and the original lipstick cam you can see that the two look pretty similar.

Unlike a lot of action sequences that are pre-visualised and shot “by the boards,” Peter preferred a more organic process whereby the wide shots or any shots involving the CG model of the Acheron were developed in post production, usually using the lipstick camera. After I had cut the storm sequence together, we worked out where the wide shots should go and how they should be framed. This allowed us more creative freedom to re-edit the scene with video temps until we thought the dramatic structure of the scene was correct.

Not only does this show that you are closing in on the Acheron, but as the sea comes and overwhelms the lens, you move into the second part of the scene — where the ship is battling the sea, instead of their adversary.

 

We were constantly evolving, trying to create a clearer structure, moving from the chase into the storm.

Now we cut downstairs to the men discussing the captain. They are starting to think that they will never catch the Acheron because it’s a “devil ship.” We used this group downstairs periodically to reinforce what’s happening on deck. Parallel activity.

[Back on deck, the carpenter warns Aubrey that because of previous damage to the mast, he can’t guarantee that it will stay up. Aubrey thinks it over, but makes a decision to proceed.]

The mast does eventually come down, but you could have had it break without this warning and we still would have understood the action.

Sure, but it’s important to illustrate that Jack Aubrey’s character is such that he’s taking risks. This is going to impact him later. He’s going to feel that he is responsible for the death of this young fellow that we’re about to see.

You and Weir never forget about character, do you?

It’s the movie. You need to get to know a lot about Aubrey — he’s not reckless but he’s got a mission. This exchange also changes the pacing of the editing here.

[A group of sail trimmers begin ascending the mast. As they do, Aubrey instructs Bonden (Billy Boyd) to set the ship on a course to put them in a direct line to take on the Acheron. We see the Acheron, and then the camera pans to Cape Horn.]

That pan was in the original plate footage that we selected.

But it wasn’t strong enough, so we blew up the shot a bit so we were able to create a bigger pan.

How do you decide when to drop back for a wide shot like you do here?

In a sequence like this, there’s a moment where you just get a feeling that you want to see what it is that’s hitting them so hard — the ocean. It’s all very well to have a lot of tight shots of water coming over the gunnels and knocking the men over. But at this point it feels like you want to go back out and have a look at the ship and the men climbing the ratlines. This also enabled us to show that the men aren’t cowering in a corner but they’re doing their jobs.

[Below deck, the ship is rocking tremendously and some of the crew is throwing up.]

We wanted to show that this storm is bigger than normal. They rocked the camera on set but we decided to put more rock into it digitally. One of the great things about shooting in Super 35 (common center) is that we’ve got extra room at the top and bottom of the frame. So, when we wanted to add some motion to the ship, we could do a move on the camera to shift our view slightly up, then down, then up and down — simulating the rocking of the ship.

[Up top, the sailing master sends a crewman up the mast to help out.]

You spend a lot of time on the mast with this character who has trouble getting up. How important is he?

At the front of the film, this guy saw the shape of the Acheron in the fog and hesitated reporting it, leaving it to a younger midshipman. In a scene after this one, we’re going to see how he blames himself for this incident at the mast. The men eventually tag him as a Jonah. They lose faith in him and that affects him for the rest of the film.

All of this action seems like just part of the general craziness of the scene and its pacing. But it is actually setting us up for the final part of the scene.

Right. Now we move into the third part — Aubrey’s decision.

 

[The mast breaks off from the ship, landing in the water, taking one of the men with it. At the same time, the mast’s ropes get stuck onto the ship and begin to drag it down, acting like an anchor.]

We immediately cut out wide to see the ship leaning precariously. We’re also showing, on the right hand side of the frame, our fellow in the water and his proximity to the ship. But, in that same moment, the ship is hit hard again by a huge wave.

This is storyline you’re showing here. You need to show that the wreckage is pulling them down.

Peter and I have gone back and forth actually having Lieutenant Pullings (James D’Arcy) tell Aubrey that the mast wreckage is acting as a sea anchor. Originally, I didn’t want Pullings to tell Aubrey because I wanted Aubrey to do all of the decision-making. But there were some points that we gained when we ended up keeping in Pullings’ line. For one, it helped us to feel that Aubrey was completely tied up in the drowning boy’s predicament in the sea. It also clearly told the audience what his dilemma was — to chop off the ropes and lose the sailor, or wait for him to swim back to the ship and potentially lose the entire ship. It reinforces for us that this is a tough decision.

This is the moment that we spent the most time reworking — balancing the reactions so Aubrey does not make the decision too quickly and seem callous or too slowly and seem inactive and recklessly endangering the ship. The trick was to show how and when he makes that decision to cut the ropes.

What were your conversations with Peter about?

It was mostly about the pace and storytelling. We also worked with the dialogue. In the dailies, Aubrey turns and says “Mr. Allen?” Allen then says “Yes, sir.” Aubrey says “Axes,” and Allen answers “Aye, sir.” In the end, we decided to cut it down to an exchange of looks that seemed more powerful. Just to reinforce what the stakes are here, we cut to a shot of the men below, gathered like rats in the sinking ship. And they’re all saying their last prayers.

 

[Up top, Allen comes back with the axes.]

And now you’ve got some music. Music is used very sparingly in the film. How did you choose what type of music to use here and when to bring it in?

We ended up using this piece of music twice in the film — for two very emotional moments. We wanted to heighten the emotion without being saccharine. We actually had it starting quite a bit later but as one of our composers, Iva Davies, was in the process of scoring, he suggested that we pull it back to where the axes came out. So it became an emotional counterbalance for the axes, which have become the instruments of death.

Now Aubrey hands an axe to a boy who is actually a friend of the sailor who is overboard, and who is going to drown when they chop those ropes. We cut back and forth between them –— once again, with no dialogue. They realize that the job has to be done. So, first Aubrey, then the friend, and finally Allen, cut the ropes.

As the final rope is cut there is a shot of the young man in the sea — we can’t really make out his face.

Rather than playing it in extreme close-up we’re again trying to keep it real and not cut to a shot of the guy with tears rolling down his face. We then see the men who cut the ropes, a bit in shock as the ship rights itself. Below deck, the men celebrate, completely unaware of what’s been going on up top. So they’re cheering and that sound overlaps to the shot back on deck as we see the men who have just sentenced the sailor to his death. They look at each other, with Aubrey as the focus. It’s all done, once again, without dialogue. And we see the drowning man floating off into the distance and he drops behind a wave and through the magic of CG he doesn’t come back up.

The editing here is very deliberate. It feels like this is a very important scene in the film.

That’s right, the dynamic on the ship and with Aubrey is going to change. It was very interesting to rework this scene, to get it to the point where we can see all of the changes that take place with the characters. All of those little moments that have got to be punctuated within a big action sequence. And still keep it exciting.

Most of those moments are personal character moments.

It was always about the characters. However, the scene is still an action sequence and it had to propel us along — so it still had to be visually amazing. Peter also wanted it to be documentary-like in showing the shipboard life. But we always kept coming back to the character moments — they had a very strong place in this sequence. For us, action should follow story. When it doesn’t, your scene may entertain, but it ’s usually forgettable.

photo by Nathan Thrall
John Lee (seated) and Lee Smith.


Norman Hollyn is a veteran film and music editor. In addition to
working in features and television, he is the head of the editing track
at USC Graduate Film School and the author of
The Film Editing Handbook. He can be reached at interview@norman-hollyn.com.


Special thanks to assistant editor John Lee
for his help with this article
.