An Interview with Simon Smith
Simon Smith is an editor, director and producer. Having worked on acclaimed series such as Ashes to Ashes, Patrick Melrose, Victoria, Endeavour, Utopia and The Moaning of Life, Simon recently worked as editor on the hit series Chernobyl. I spoke with Simon about his early job as production runner, his industry inspirations and his work on Chernobyl.
Did you always think you would go into editing? What was your first experience in this line?
One of my early jobs as a Production Runner on a BBC drama production meant I’d run paperwork between each of the departments, and back then the edit team was on location with everyone else, albeit in their own little set of offices. I had an instant affinity with the editors, and found any excuse I could to go and take them something. It was probably inevitable that I would end up an editor.
Is there anyone in the industry who has really inspired your work as an editor?
That first editor I met was Colin Goudie, who has since cut the Star Wars film Rogue One. We’re still close friends and he gives me a lot of advice, and he definitely continues to inspire me. I spent most of my time as an assistant working for Luke Dunkley, who taught me pretty much everything I know. Outside of my network of contacts, I’m definitely inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has one of the most famous edits - the cut from the bones that the ape throws into the air to the spaceship. Everything about that film amazes me, and really liberates my thinking and confidence with where you can go and what you can do through editing.
You worked as editor on Chernobyl. Can you tell me more about this experience, and how the opportunity came about?
Actually, it’s another thing to thank Luke Dunkley for - he was originally up for the job but wasn’t available and kindly recommended me to the director. It was a big step up for me, but Luke knew I could do it, and the director trusted Luke’s recommendation.
It was a long job, I was in that cutting room every day for a year, and I don’t think I’d be understating it by saying that it’s had a life-changing effect on my career. We’ve been very lucky that the show caught a wave, and was seen by so many people, and has been so positively received.
And of course I learnt what it was like to work on such a huge production, we had Music Editors, in-house VFX artists, and then a constant dialogue with DNEG, the company doing all the major VFX. We were working across time-zones, with our Writer/Exec in Los Angeles, Director in New York, composer in Berlin, edit team in London. Everything I’d done until this had been on a much smaller scale. But the essence of editing doesn’t change.
What was the most challenging scene to edit, and why?
I’m particularly happy with the end of Episode 2 of Chernobyl, which is 3 or 4 minutes of some men walking around in the dark, dressed in protective diving suits. There’s no dialogue, so the use of sound design is really important. We create great tension throughout that scene, slowly ratcheting up and up and up, and when it finally peaks the men are left in complete darkness. Even now I get a really visceral reaction to watching it.
Which editing software did you use, and why?
For most high-end TV drama, you’ll be editing with Avid Media Composer. It’s been the industry standard for years, and is the best for working in teams with multiple Editors and assistants.
Is there a software you find particularly intuitive or enjoyable to use?
I’ve enjoyed experimenting with Adobe and Final Cut Pro software, I haven’t yet understood the mechanics of Davinci Resolve, but I’m sure I could pick it up. When you become really fluent with a piece of software, like I feel I am with Avid now, it just becomes an extension of how you are thinking, you don’t really have to consider the software. But it takes time and a lot of hours of use.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve had, and would you give this piece of advice yourself to someone pursuing this line of work?
"Trust in the process". To edit something takes a long time, you’re not supposed to get there right away, first time. It’s iterative, and requires lots of sculpting and work, and then has to be put in the context of the entire film or series and not just scene at a time. Whenever I was finding something difficult, I knew I just had to keep going and work through it, collaborate with my Director and team, and that we would get there.