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The Invisible Maestro: Unraveling Jennifer Lame's art of film editing

Lame won the Best Editing Oscar for her work on 'Oppenheimer'. Pic: Universal
3 minute read
Lame won the Best Editing Oscar for her work on 'Oppenheimer'. Pic: Universal

A look at the art of film editing with Oscar-winning editor Jennifer Lame and how her techniques in films such as Manchester by the Sea, Tenet, and, of course, Oppenheimer create compelling narratives while evoking deep emotional responses. 

You'll be familiar with the scene: A hero races against time, the seconds ticking down as they defuse a bomb. The camera cuts between the hero's face, the ominous digits of the countdown, and the (understandably) anxious crowd watching from a distance. Suddenly, the screen goes black. All there is is the sound of a heartbeat through the cinema speakers. The audience holds their breath, swears, or shuts their eyes; suspended in the tension of the moment. It's an intense experience and one that is created not just by brilliant acting, precise VFX, or a gripping storyline—it's the subtle but essential craft of film editing at work.

Film editing is the invisible art that shapes the narrative and emotional impact of a movie. It involves meticulously selecting, cutting, and arranging of footage to create a coherent and compelling story. In the old days, it was done just like that; cutting and splicing sections of celluloid together to make a complete reel. Nowadays, it's a digital process. And while it's faster and more efficient, the actual basics have not changed even as technology has. Good editing enhances pacing, creates tension, and evokes targeted emotional responses in the viewer. All in all it is a crucial aspect of the filmmaking process.

Honestly, it can make or break a film. Some mediocre work has been elevated by good editing, other superb movies have been hobbled by a lacklustre performance in the cutting room. Which is why editors are the stars that they are.

Jennifer Lame, the Oscar-winning editor of Oppenheimer, is one of the best. And a look at her techniques and processes is exactly the sort of thing that provides insights and inspiration for aspiring editors and filmmakers.

Manchester by the Sea

Lame began her career in independent films, where she gained recognition for her ability to weave complex narratives with emotional depth on titles such as Manchester by the Sea and Marriage Story, where her editing played a crucial role in the storytelling.

Editing a film like Manchester by the Sea presents several unique challenges due to its intricate narrative structure. The film is non-linear when it comes to time, intertwining present-day events with flashbacks. It's a useful technique but a tricky one to pull off; requiring seamless transitions to maintain coherence and avoid disorienting the audience. They need to know both where and when they are to make sense of the story. Balancing these time shifts demands a precise and sensitive approach, which Lame pulls off with aplomb. Plus, the film's raw, candid portrayal of grief and trauma necessitates careful pacing to allow the audience to fully engage with the characters' experiences without overwhelming them.


Lame's collaboration with director Christopher Nolan on Tenet further showcased her skill in handling intricate and layered narratives, which are, of course, something of a Nolan speciality. This was even more challenging due to another complex, non-linear narrative, as well as high-concept science fiction elements involving time inversion. Anything involving time can baffle even the most engaged audience if not handled carefully, so Lame had to ensure the audience could follow the intricate plot. This required precise synchronization of action sequences and meticulous attention to the minutest details of continuity to maintain both clarity and coherence. None of this was made any easier by the film's rapid pacing and frequent shifts in perspective from high-octane action to moments of exposition. All in all, it's a wild ride that Lame impressively manages to keep from spiralling out of control.


Lame’s crowning achievement to date has come with Oppenheimer, a film that solidified her reputation and earned her an Oscar for Best Film Editing. 

One of the primary challenges was maintaining a coherent narrative while seamlessly once more integrating multiple timelines. The story spans several decades, with significant flashbacks and flash-forwards, demanding a careful orchestration of events to ensure that the audience can easily follow the progression of Oppenheimer's life,  the development of the atomic bomb, and the fallout that ensues (quite literally).

There’s a complex historical aspect to the movie. Lame has to handle vast amounts of archival footage, scientific explanations, and historical details, blending them with dramatic scenes to create a cohesive and engaging story. This requires a precise balance. Lame had to decide what information was crucial for the audience to understand the gravity of the events and had to be explicitly presented, and what could be subtly implied. The result is a narrative that is both informative and emotionally resonant. 

Emotional depth is a cornerstone of Oppenheimer, as it delves into the personal struggles and moral dilemmas faced by its protagonist. Pacing is critical; Lame had to allow sufficient time for the audience to absorb the emotional weight of key moments without slowing down the narrative even as it jumped across history. This involves carefully choosing reaction shots, lingering on characters' faces where appropriate, and crafting scenes that gradually build emotional intensity.

An editor does not work in isolation. As with any project, Lame’s collaboration with the director and other creative team members was essential in achieving the film's vision. Rewatching Oppenheimer, Lame is notably adept at managing the interplay between dialogue-driven scenes and visual storytelling, ensuring that each element enhances the other and there is a balance between intellectual engagement and emotional resonance.

Tags: Post & VFX Production Editing Adobe Editing