Oscar-winning editor Joe Walker, ACE, discusses the complexities of bringing director Denis Villeneuve’s vision across the finish line in editorial. Sound, VFX, and the careful pacing of story elements and tonal transitions.

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with Oscar winner, Joe Walker, ACE. I interviewed Joe in person just before the ACE Eddies at his home on a rainy Los Angeles day… you may hear some of that in the background.

Joe was one of the very first Art of the Cut guests on March 18th, 2014 - a decade ago - when he was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA and an ACE Eddie for his editing of 12 Years a Slave. Since then we’ve talked about his work on Sicario - another ACE Eddie nomination - Arrival - BAFTA and Oscar nominations and an ACE Eddie win - , Bladerunner 2049 - BAFTA and ACE Eddie nominations -, then Widows, then Dune - for which he was nominated for a BAFTA and an ACE Eddie and won the Oscar - , then, most recently we talked when he cut The Creator, and now - Dune 2. 

Eight lovely discussions that you should go back and have a listen to! Joe has a lovely ability to edit instinctively, but be able to explain where that instinct is coming from, plus, you just want to grab a beer or a cup of tea and listen - just to feel part of a great, fun conversation.

You and I have been talking to each other for 10 years. 

Good Lord. 

I can’t believe it.

We should put up a plaque.

Thanks for being such a good friend for the last 10 years and having wonderful things to say. I have a question about Dune 2. Would it be possible to edit this movie without subwoofers?

Well, definitely not to listen to it. 


After Dune 1, we did have a number of cinema owners complaining that it was destroying the fabric of their screens and that the railings were rattling and they popped a few subs. So, yeah, believe it or not, Dune Part Two was our attempt to be slightly more adventurous in the upper ranges. (Laughs)


After Paul says that he believes in revenge there are a series of dissolves to flashbacks or visions. What guides you when you decide to use dissolves instead of cuts?

So Paul and Jessica are kind of alone in a sort of canteen with the Fremen and looking very excluded indeed. Because Paul is eating food contaminated with spice - and he’s sensitive to it - and slips into trance. We suggest that by using a camera flare, actually, I don’t think of it - funnily enough - as a dissolve.

I mean, I’m not hostile to dissolves. When I was a rookie editor, a mentor advised me to avoid them.  Unless they became part of the story. He hated the concept of: “If you can’t fix it, mix it. If you can’t solve it, dissolve it.”

But in this particular scene, we’re talking about a series of supers. We had this amazing result from a certain chip that responded to sunlight and flaring in a particular way. And [director] Denis [Villeneuve] had spotted it while he was doing a pickup shoot, I think actually in California.

It had this sort of striated effect - a bit like eyelashes and it felt like it needed to become an iconic part of the film. It also helps me to lose continuity completely. You’re just in his head-space, with a sound that reminds you of a psychedelic experience, I suppose.

Joe Walker, ACE, photo courtesy Taylor Joy Mason

I know this is a horrible word to use with a fellow editor, but “shoe leather.” It’s got a negative connotation. But what I mean by it is: anytime you’re showing travel, there has to be a purpose. There has to be a reason. As the Fremen and Paul are carrying Jamis’ body back to the sietch, we watch them travel. What’s the value of that? If you wanted to you could just cut to them arriving at the sietch and you’d be done.

There’s a lot of subtext going on in that moment. You see Chani’s status in the Fremen crowd, which you haven’t been able to see before. Part Two has been designed completely as a standalone film. You should be able to watch it without having seen Part One. The goal was to slip in as much necessary background surreptitiously into the story.

You know very little about the Fremen in Part One, because of limited screen time, honestly. Denis always talked about Part One as being the appetizer and this being the main course where everything’s set up and you can just enjoy a damn good Action–Adventure story.

So that little moment there, Paul wants to carry the body himself, which is a great sign of his respect for the Fremen, but the person who has to relinquish the strap that’s holding the dead body defers to Chani. There’s a tension between those two people. It’s a very unspoken moment where you sense there’s trouble ahead for somebody harboring an outsider.

Of course, that’s going straight to the main theme of the first half of the movie, which is Paul having to paddle very hard to be able to kind of establish himself with the Fremen to survive. The whole journey to the sietch sets up an idea that the Fremen are completely hidden. At this point in the story, virtually unassailable.

There’s a wonderful moment with Chani and Paul as she talks about wind traps. It’s kind of got these romantic undertones. She starts to explain how the wind traps work, and then you drop her voice out. Why?

In that case, to allow us to just appreciate the images of these two people getting closer. The important thing there was to break away from the dialogue. The dialogue wasn’t important. The looks are. The fondness, the closeness, but also the acknowledgement that Chani is the only one who really believes he’s gonna make it - even then she only really responds to Paul, I think, when he proves himself as a warrior.

The other big reason for playing some of that sequence mute was to allow [composer] Hans [Zimmer] to enter the fray with what becomes a kind of very strong theme. That was one of the main quests with Hans, we were trying to find a piece of music for a love theme.

And Hans - I think by his own admission - would say that there aren’t that many [romantic themes] in the catalog. He’s known for pounding and a hugely Teutonic sense of fate, you know. But weirdly, Hans - God bless the man - when we finished Part One, he carried on writing and we were both sent CDs full of new music.

One of those tracks ended up being the opening piece for his live show. He went round Europe and did a massive world tour - and the opening with the singer Loire [Cotler] featured this variation of the Atreides theme. It’s a beautiful arrangement. It’s Pedro [Eustache], who’s his woodwind player, and Loire, and I think there’s ‘cello and synthesizers.

I’ve talked to a couple of sound guys, Walter Murch being one, Randy Thom being another, about the importance of giving space for sound design and score. You CAN just do wall-to-wall dialogue and laser blasts if you want to.

Interestingly, that scene, I actually cut without sound. Isn’t that crazy? I cut a dialogue scene between the two of them without listening to the sound, and we figured the sound out a little bit later. There was one key thing from Chani which is that opening shot. 

The important thing was to pick the right shots and the right looks and then go back and then think of it as : “Well, they’re moving their lips. We ought to have the dialogue.”

There’s been some recent discussion about burdensome amounts of dialogue in film because of the influence of Television. From my background in Britain, it’s probably something I recognize more as the heritage of Radio and Theater rather than Television. 

And Cinema, to me, the stuff that I really celebrate comes from somewhere slightly different. I watched an amazing film called “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and it’s so charged, but actually at the end of it, I kind of thought, I don’t remember them really speaking

That was out two or three years ago. [2019 actually]

That’s right. There’s never a moment lacking tension and it’s not achieved necessarily through dialogue. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate great dialogue, which I really do and we spend - I have to say - hours and hours and hours finessing, improving, trying to kind of get the best clarity generally in the story.

It’s a hyper narrative, and our aim in Dune, which is a vast ensemble piece with a complex story and complex backgrounds and Frank Herbert’s almost fractal approach to storytelling, we had to have utter clarity and delivery of ideas.

I think TV is so dialogue-driven because in the early days, you couldn’t really have very cinematic images. You’re just looking at a small screen. What are you gonna do? You gotta tell me the story with talking.

Maybe.  And let’s not forget, the early television speaker technology was closer in design to a telephone: built to maximize vocal range over other things. But in Cinema we’re a lot more free. This was mixed in Dolby Atmos, native. So sound was always a very key strategy. 

And that really means building up the sound from day one - we were working with our friends in Sound in New Zealand and here in Los Angeles from day 1 of the shoot. I cleared out a whole load of paperwork the other day, which was us communicating to Dave Whitehead and Martin Kwok - who, at that point, were working on the gladiatorial scene – a ‘roadmap’ of where the peaks and troughs of that scene should be.

Denis and I had broken it down into 30 pieces and we were identifying where the “tens” were - the ‘elevens,’ if you like.

Feyd pulling off his shield and Lanville being stabbed. Right from the outset, we needed to create something that doesn’t sound like a 21st century Sport event. It can’t be NFL. Denis had also developed a number of behaviors for the Harkonnens - the way that they clasped their hands together and they don’t clap.

So, a massive Sport events with tens of thousands of people not clapping, you have to do something. So we were engaging from day one of the shoot with the Sound team to say, let’s have a look at Haka, the Maori chant. Dave Whitehead offered that up and did a kind of fantastic Harkonnen haka. Then let’s have a look at stamping in this massive arena – and building it into the fabric of the cut.

Screenshot of the first section of Reel 4 of Dune 2

Did they give you a toolbox of sounds?

They were giving me stems from early on.  In my timeline, right in the middle of the timeline was always premixed dialogue, spot dialogue fx, added crowd, all that kind of stuff. They recorded - at some point - a huge group of Heavy Metal rockers to amplify the psychotic nature of the crowd.

I have a note about a hard cut from the explosion of the Spice harvester to the Fremen celebrating. Why not allow the explosion to play out? Was there just not enough VFX budget? :-)

It just plays beautifully. The rhythm of it, to me it does. It’s like you ride the wave!

I’ve talked to so many people that say, if you let the explosion happen and die off, now all the energy is gone, and you’ve gotta pick that up at with the next scene. This way, the energy stays up, right?

I think we discovered that cut fairly early in the fine-cutting process, about a week in. There used to be more stuff, there was more banter between Chani and Paul in the tent.

Yeah, you could have had the spice harvester blowing up a lot more, but story comes first. He’s in! That’s the high point – Paul’s in!  And you mark that moment straight away rather than finding it.

You know, I’m searching for some hard cuts in the film for rhythm and for energy. There’s a lot when Paul goes to the Assembly Chamber, you couldn’t get harder.  Sticking a percussion-only downbeat moving fast towards a tundra of black volcanic rock. It’s bold. 

Here’s a little thing I found when I was working in (sound) dubbing on 35mm, that if you’re doing a hard bang on a cut, put it half-a-frame early and it really feels like it’s ON the cut.

Screenshot of the first section of Reel 1 of Dune 2.

What about what I call the “macro-pacing” of the story lines of Paul and Feyd. They’re separate, but inevitably going to join.

WALKER: In the original script, the story of Paul and Feyd were more intercut and it was something that we - one way of putting it is that we just allow those buttresses to climb into the air a little longer so that you saw the whole rise of each of them. 

The really nice thing in that kind of buildup, I think is the fact that the film accommodates not only huge action adventure, big set pieces like the worm ride, but you also really invest in the intimate moments. And the thing that happens before the worm ride is a tiny little scene in a stilltent between Chani and Paul.

He’s woken up from a vision of the South - which reminds me, something we worked hard to generate was a clear sense of what the South represents to Paul. So there’s a lot of references to the fundamentalists of the South, but not only that, it also has its own visual look.

It’s a hostile environment compared to the North, which one assumes is extremely hostile to start with. There’s a line that Princess Irulan has, which I really love that sums it up, which is “nothing can live there without faith.” And it sets up this idea that - in his nightmares, he’s being dragged South and he knows that that’s going to trigger a Holy War.

Tell me a little about how the worm ride itself was filmed.

They had a Worm Unit, it was a splinter unit and it was directed by Tanya Lapointe, who’s a Producer on this film. She has a real affinity for choreographing action and every one of those shots is very, very hard won. If you imagine, on a lot of them, they are throwing several tons of dust and crap at an actor who’s on some kind of gimbal stage that’s being angled down…

How long did they shoot?

I looked it up the other day. There were 44 days of shoot for that. So cutting a scene like that, it’s like having a jigsaw puzzle that’s arriving just one piece at a time. You are constantly reassessing. And in that sequence, I think there was a little bit of economy in there where we found things were duplicating. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted everything to be dynamic.

Denis once said to me, “This film should be less like Lawrence of Arabia and more like Chuck Jones’ Roadrunner.” And in fact, if you look at my cutting room, Chris printed out a picture of Roadrunner. It’s on the wall. Just as a reminder.

That’s the couch director Denis Villeneuve sits in, guiding the editorial process to Roadrunner-like heights

That’s pretty funny! When you cut a scene like that with a huge amount of amazing, powerful sound effects, do you cut on mute?

I was always building up the sound on that sequence. Just needed that power. Often I turn speakers off as a reference and cut something ignoring the sound. The trouble with cutting something like that is just practical: I’ve got 36 sound channels, they’re all staggered and overlaid, so if you are adjusting one image, you’re adjusting 36 cuts.

It’s a lot. So the most efficient way to adjust that kind of sequence is to turn sound off, cut the sequence, and then work on the sound to knit it back together again. Sometimes I just want to feel the rhythm of things in my head in silence and then you can complement it with the sound.

I would think that for that worm-riding scene, the production sound is useless.

There was none, actually. They didn’t record it. They only recorded the dialogue stuff with Chani and Stilgar, but there was nothing from the Worm Unit. It would’ve just been fan noise.

Talk about the buildup to the Chani/Paul kiss scene. This film is a romance in some way at its heart and I just felt that tension between them in that scene. You know it’s gonna happen and you want it to happen, but you also don’t wanna give it too early. 

Yeah. Chani can’t be a shoo-in, right? I mean, she’s a tough Fremen warrior and Paul had to earn his right to be there with her. I don’t know if there are that many actors that can carry off that scene quite as well as they did. It was really beautiful getting the dailies.

That scene virtually didn’t change in the cut. Denis always pays me the greatest compliment of not changing things when they work, and the Chani/Paul scene was pretty much unchanged. It was just very clear what the path through the scene was from the dailies, and it was kind of beautiful material. Paul’s desire to be equal with her.

What about the second Paul nightmare near the end of the film. Can you talk about that cutting that?

There’s a lot of flashes towards the end. There’s a big buildup where - to protect the Fremen - Paul needs to go South. Stilgar is urging him to go South. His Mother has prepared the way, but he knows that that’s going to trigger a Holy War. It’s very clear what his fears are, there are a few nightmare visions of a woman’s figure walking through thousands of people who are starving and dying. 

Then the visions become very personal, it’s Chani who he’s starting to see suffering in his nightmares. So as the film progresses and there’s more pressure on him, I was using more and more little stabs just to constantly remind us of what’s stopping him. We’re inside his head more and more and more.

Florence Pugh’s character, Princess Irulan starts the film, but the rest of her story comes in pretty late in the movie. Did you feel the need to keep her alive in some way?

We generated an additional diary entry at one point where she explains Jessica in the South. That was part of the strategy of trying to make abundantly clear what the South represents, so that when he does go there, you know exactly what the choice is. 

But it also allowed her to kind of come back into the audience’s consciousness. 

Irulan - in the book - she’s there in every chapter. It’s a sense of what happens in the future when a historian starts to collate and collect. She’s embedded with the Bene Gesserit and the Emperor. So she’s amongst the most powerful people. She’s tracking the events from the million-foot view.

Because those scenes with Irulan are off-world, they could go anywhere. They’re not necessarily in the same timeline as what’s happening on Dune. So how do you decide, or is it just in the script, where the most effective place to put those scenes is?

There was a moment in the cut where we just went back to little cards with scene numbers and scene descriptions, to kind of perfect it. It’s a really strong script. Denis was really on top with the script, but there’s the flesh and blood thing of feeling when you watch a film. What’s the pace, the overall pace of a film? When I say pace, I don’t just mean how fast the cuts are.

I mean what is moving you, underneath? What is the big drive in the story and how do we cross-cut those? If you cut off the flow too soon, it’s just an age old editing conundrum.  In TV often – Mad Men for example is constantly doing the Chinese plate trick of going between different story strands, keeping each plate spinning, and that works in TV because of the medium.

But in a feature film where you want a strong feeling of drive, it’s sometimes a better idea to kind of combine stories or to let them flow. I’m basically playing with Paul’s story, the Harkonnen story, and on Jessica laying “the Way." Irulan’s diaries always gave us an opportunity to clarify their progress. And to that end, Denis shot a beautiful amount of material of the diary room.

There wer so many more angles than we needed because he knew that we might need to improvise one [a diary scene] and we did.

## There's a fight that is staged for Feyd's birthday in a giant arena. Was that shot in black and white?

Well, it looks black and white, but actually it’s not. It’s infrared.

Here’s an interesting thing. I’ve always been fascinated by what scenes do film-makers pick to start with? What do you start on for Principal photography.

Meaning the first day of shooting.

Exactly. What do you schedule first? And I had a tiny bit of footage shot in this beautiful mausoleum in northern Italy, which was the Bene Gesserit and Irulan material.  But really the first scene in Principal photography was the Arena. First of all, I had no idea that Austin Butler could look like that.

## Me neither! Who is this guy? He is scary looking!

I met him on set, actually. I sat in his trailer for about half an hour. I was fucking terrified. He is really scary, with his black teeth. Like a vampire. And in the first week of filming, they’d have this idea that Geidi Prime is a place where the natural world has been long abandoned and it’s kind of a plastic place.

I went into the Art department right on my first day in Budapest, and you just end up gawping at this wall of ideas that they’d been working on for a year. And I asked Patrice Vermette, the amazing Production Designer, “What’s the inspiration for Geidi Prime?” And he said it was black septic tank design. So there you go.


How did I get there?

But it was shot in infrared, which means…

So the idea was that it’s a black sun that sucks the color out.  Black and white wouldn’t do what infrared does to the skin. There’s two really weird artifacts. First of all, eyes: the vein structure of the eyes is very visible. 

And there’s a kind of waxy quality to the skin where it feels thin and sickly. This is all great for the Harkonnens having an advantage over the Atreides who are used to a lush, watery landscape, but here they come out blinking into this horrendous Sun. And, of course, the really bold thing is they shot all this stuff and there’s no going back. If you don’t like it, it’s baked in. It’s a very, very bold move.

Very ballsy! I love it. You and I have talked about the Kuleshov Effect before. I think you said at one point, “If you know what that is, you know of the secret to my editing.” 

Yeah. I’ve got one cheap trick.

The Kuleshov Effect.

Showing a face, then showing something the person could be thinking of, then coming back to the face. There’s a place in the film where I felt you used it: Paul’s having these visions and you’re cutting between his faith and these things that he’s thinking of.

Yeah. There’s a moment with Gurney and Paul where we cut to the nightmare that he’s referring to in speech. You know, it was always the intention to kind of ramp up the interior life of Paul in the edit. Well, you know, having learned a lot on “Arrival” on how to structure visions.

Dune really goes “hell for leather” for that. You have to kind of persuade everybody that this guy is capable - towards the end - of seeing every possible permutation of an event. But in Dune Messiah, it poses a question: if somebody can foresee everything, how do you kill them?

## I just have a note that says "Vision, water of life."

With Alia. A grownup Alia. That was interesting. Anya Taylor-Joy was a kind of secret ingredient.  Right from the outset, I think Patrice, no it was Greig [Fraser, cinematographer] showed me an image of somebody standing on a dune in Namibia looking out to sea, and said “we’re gonna try and do this”. It was a secret location, it wasn’t on any Unit list.

And Denis wanted to keep it under wraps, so for example, even in our test screening, we would have a big blur effect on that face. But then Anya Taylor-Joy came to the Première and the cat was out of the bag. We did manage to keep the secret which is extraordinary. 

There is stunningly little exposition in this movie, or maybe it’s just because the editing hit it so well or it’s so well hidden in the script. Was there a discussion of how much was necessary to follow a pretty complex story?

Look, the difficulty of doing a film that’s set 25,000 years in the future is: if if I was making film set in Brooklyn in 2024, I wouldn’t have to explain to you how cars work. We’re in a whole other world where we’ve got shield technology… and why do they use swords? We did a lot of that heavy lifting in Part One and it really liberated us in Part Two.

And it allows us to feel a lot. There’s fear and there’s love and there’s anxiety. It’s a bit of a treat. (Perhaps we could lose this sentence, I repeat it shortly afterwards)

## I've talked to people about the fact that you can't really tell by watching a scene, which ones are the easy ones and which ones are the hard ones. Are there any scenes that were more difficult than you might imagine watching the film that people would not realize was a struggle? Or maybe there was a scene that looks very complicated, but it was a joy and easy to cut?

The Feyd/Paul fight at the end, that’s unchanged from the first cut. But that’s not to say it wasn’t a hard scene to put together, which it really was. But I was able to devote time to that and make it watertight only because I had an incredible team that enabled me to have that kind of focus. It was a bit of a treat actually for me.

I worked with a really talented first Assistant Chris, Chris Voutsinas who’s an Editor and I was very lucky to have him. He’s been assisting for a long time. We met years ago on a Michael Mann film, in 2014. He joined us and was a very, very supportive, creative partner in many ways.

And that enabled me to give him a few of the smaller scenes to look after and for me to kind of concentrate on the big set pieces, which really, really needed a lot of time and devotion. 

And that Paul/Feyd scene was a two week shoot where you can imagine they have every single cast member in pretty much all the shots. It’s a complicated shoot. I’ve invented a way of working with Chris. I’ll be honest and frank with you, which is that I’ve always had an anxiety about passing work over to Assistants.

And I don’t mean that as any criticism of people, but it’s just that time is so scarce. And Dune Two: it’s the third time in Budapest and I kind of know the rhythm and it is a slightly monk-like existence of going to work early, being in good health, going to the Gym, eating well, sleeping well, rinse and repeat six or seven days a week for six months. You have to be super focused.

Chris Voutsinas and his Old English Sheepdog, Jake, photo courtesy Eduardo Garcia.

And I found any extraneous effort of trying to teach somebody is just not something I could endanger the process with. But with Chris, I found a way of working that I really liked and it satisfied my need to look at everything.

So I know when it’s just me and Denis in a small room that I know everything and if he needs some change, I’ve got a repertory of ways of solving it. So the way I worked on this - and I’m sure I’m not alone in this - is that I got my second assistant, Mercédesz Czanka, to break a scene down into chunks, she’d chunk it down into sections lasting 30 or 40 second and make a string-out of every setup of that section, good or bad, you know, scene 31, 31-A, 31-B, all of the slates. And then to do the next section with a little overlap so you’re not just like bumping into it.

And in between those three sections is a massive amount of black so that when you look at it from afar, then you can tell where the second section is, right? Actually I had that running for multiple scenes, including the Feyd fight. I think that was a 14 hour assembly of things. It was a lot of chunks and they were longish takes. 

But I had to kind of find a way of breaking it down to get what I need for this moment in the story. That way if I was handing a smaller scene over to somebody, I mean Mercédesz herself cut a great scene between Shishakli, Chani and Paul outside this little cave.

She cut that. I was able to go through the material, all of it, and then say, “Okay, what do I really like?” And if I really like a performance of a line or whatever it is, I would move it up higher into the timeline. So if there’s a clip that’s been moved up to V5, that means you put that in the cut or else you can pack up! If it’s down on V1: “Don’t worry about it.

There’s better material. But clips on V3 or V4? Those are the ones to concentrate on.” And if there was audio that I like, separate from video, I could pull that down into A3-4, or A5-6 or A7-8. Then I’d look through the highlights with Mercédesz or with Chris and then I could say, “Here’s my roadmap. This is a key moment in the scene that you’ve got to do on this shot.”

And that was my way of doing it. I was able to keep control in this awful way that I have to.  But then I could look - almost like an outsider - at the cut that they did. It’s really helpful to be able to kind of assess a cut, probably easier than your own work.

It freed me up to be able to do these big set pieces and much more complicated scenes that were involving multiple plates, multiple VFX and long shoots, like a 44-day worm ride. It just enabled me to keep everything running and not go completely mad.

Mercédesz Czanka and Penir, photo courtesy Eduardo Garcia.

You and I have talked about your fondness and respect for Chris, your 1st, and it’s the big problem with a great 1st Assistant, right? Is you want them for yourself, but you also want them to go fly the coop. Right? I’ve talked to so many people who say, “I’ve got this great 1st Assistant that I don’t wanna let go of, but they need to be cutting.”

I had a long relationship with Javier Marcheselli who was my brilliant first on “12 years a Slave.” We met in Louisiana in 2012 and then he came up to Montréal - it was just me and him and Denis doing Sicario. And then… numerous films. It gets to the point where I say, “Yeah man, there’s no signs of you abating your interest in what we’re doing.”

But honestly, you know, Javier is a VFX supervisor in the making. And I think there was a show where I said to him, “Look, I’m gonna tell you something, and I’m gonna ask you something, which do you want first?” He said, “Ask me something.” I said, “Do you wanna work on this next film? The job’s yours if you want it, I’d absolutely love to have you back.”

He said, “Whatcha gonna tell me?” I said, “Say no!” And then he went off and worked on “White Noise” and his career gained some strength from that. But it’s really, really difficult because in the cutting room, these relationships are tested under extreme pressure and that’s where diamonds are created. It’s very, very hard to let that go.

Chris, Joe and Steve on a walk up to the Griffith’s Observatory in 2023

Joe, thank you so much for talking.

Of course! Always! It’s like talking to a mate.

That’s how I feel as well.