Is Post-Production Going Out of Sync?
A conversation with editor, Mick Audsley ☛
Mick Audsley has edited everything from My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liaisons to 12 Monkeys and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but he’s concerned about the direction in which post-production is going. With the help of Hyperactive and Pivotal Post, he’s started an event called Sprocket Rocket, hosted by Soho’s De Lane Lea facility house, to get the industry talking. Having worked with Mick very briefly some years ago, I decided to see if I could lure him to the comfort of a West End club to find out more about his take on editing and where he thinks things are going wrong.
Mick is friendly but reserved. His authority, which is plain to see, comes from a sense that nothing is said without being thought through. Like many senior editors, he comes across sometimes as diplomat, sometimes as advocate, and sometimes as trusted adviser. There is an air of confidentiality about him as he leans forward in his chair to address me in a quiet voice, which makes repeating his words openly here almost feel like speaking out of turn.
He attended the Royal College of Art with the intention of studying animation. He soon realized however that animation was a very lonely world: “I wanted to be involved in more collaborative filmmaking.” Even when he switched to live action, he did everything but picture editing. His first experience of cutting came when he edited a pitch to the BFI for a production of King Lear. The experience was revelatory: “I saw that this was where the power was in filmmaking.” The project was commissioned.
“This was where the power was in filmmaking”
Keen not to get sidetracked from his goal of working in features, Mick stuck with the BFI. His mentor Mike Ellis advised him to “get on the rungs of the ladder that you want to climb, because it was very hard in Britain to jump, so if you wanted to do commercials or you wanted to do telly, then you should work at a lower level there.” The strategy paid off and Mick worked on progressively bigger and better films.
I asked Mick what the atmosphere was like in the BFI cutting rooms when he was there in the 1970s.
“Cutting rooms would all be working next to each other” he said. “We’d show each other work, we’d get excited about things, we’d ask advice, we’d ask friends to screenings: ‘We’re going to run a reel today, will you come and have a look and give your notes?’ I too would be asked to come and see a film that Kevin Brownlow was making, and it was very exciting to see something like that and be asked your opinion. It was new to me to be given a voice.”
Mick mourns the loss of this culture: “everyone’s so worried about things being stolen, or that someone might say something bad about your film. We’re much more jumpy about the process.” He feels he learned from the collaborative atmosphere: “they taught me how to talk about things, how to share the filmmaking construction issues that editorial has to deal with. I hadn’t had that through film school. I’d learned practical skills, but not thinking skills.” This question of how you think about editing and approach your material is a theme to which Mick returns again and again. He believes that, while you can’t teach editors a rhythmic or visual sense, “you can teach modes of thinking or ways of approaching problems that will arm them.”
Finding himself at the National Film School at the same time as the young Terence Davies, Mick cut one of Davies’ first films. During this edit he was mentored by the veteran director Alexander Mackendrick, who was teaching at the Film School and seemed to have a surprising amount of time on his hands: “It was an absolutely life changing experience. He spoke about film in a way that blew my mind. I kept in touch with him over the years until he died. He was a guru to me – I certainly recommend his book, it’s a must for any filmmaker, whichever discipline you’re interested in.” Mick, now involved with film education himself, credits his approach to those few days with Mackendrick: “When I was making films early on I thought to myself in some arrogant way, ‘they’re beautifully cut… but they don’t work.’” Analysis of this question lead him back to the script: “I devoured everything I could find on screenplay writing. I think the thing of deciding which shot, and deciding which way the story goes in the cutting room is merely the next stage on from screenplay writing.”
Mick’s first feature, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, was produced by Goldcrest. The break into independent features presented a new challenge: working with a crew. “I’d cut a feature for the BFI called Brothers and Sisters and I’d basically done that all on my own, so I walked into a bigger film not quite knowing what the jobs were. I must have been a source of great embarrassment to my assistants, because I was all ready to sync up the rushes and number everything, but suddenly I realized that there was a demarcation, so I had to learn the ropes. There was a fair amount of weeping in the toilet.”
But Mick had picked up a few tricks of his own, including the use of the Moviola, less favoured by British editors at the time, “I mastered the Moviola at the BFI, because essentially people were so frightened of it (I didn’t tell them that I was as well) that they kept away. Besides there’s only room for two heads to look down the barrel of a Moviola – just you and the director – so people left you alone. So I used one right up until the end of 12 Monkeys. I was a Moviola guy all those years and have the sore neck to prove it.”
You need to know what sort of animal you’re making and know when that animal’s got four legs and is running
He switched to cutting digitally when cutting The Van for his long-term collaborator Stephen Frears, working first on Lightworks, then eventually switching to Avid. But Mick is not a naturally techy editor: “To me it’s just a tool. It’s like discussing a Hoover or a Dyson: they do the same job.” While he enthusiastically welcomed the advantages of digital editing, he’s become mindful of the down-sides. He’s seen it lead to sloppy thinking and deferred decision-making: “The ability to have access to raw material outside the cutting room creates a desire to mine the rushes endlessly. You need to know what sort of animal you’re making and know when that animal’s got four legs and is running.” But for Mick the technology does hold one way of combating this danger of losing focus, “the ability to keep versions of the movie in your back pocket and remind yourself that the thinking of three months ago is not necessarily deficient. When you refer back to it you can say ‘why on earth did we spend three months twiddling around here? What was wrong with that?’”
Digital editing also caused Mick to worry for his crews: “Leaving editing on film has threatened to take jobs away, and I don’t think that’s right. I’m very reliant on my assistants who are also very, very close friends who are filmmakers in their own right and we all understand what our responsibilities are and the fun of it is that teamwork.” He argues that more recent developments in digital shooting have added pressure in the other direction to keep the cutting room well-manned “there’s a huge increase in the sheer volume of the material that’s coming in. If it was neg and print then people had an incentive to keep that costing down, but now if you’ve got an Alexa camera squirting away, or three or four of them all at once… When I started, I used to consider a heavy day to be half an hour. Now six hours is a standard quantity of non-selected material. It’s staggering amounts and, if you’re just yourself and an assistant, it’s a huge job keeping that in a database and under control.” This increased workload is one of the issues he believes has led to increased isolation in the cutting room: “You’re having keyboard lunches, you never get away from the machine”.
Data cameras aren’t the only new challenge: “the demands of distributing material, of dealing with the possible piratisation. The fact that material is flying around and being offered up in a thousand different ways. I still think the numbers should be the same, I think it takes two assistants and an editor to be confidently and quietly appraising what’s coming in and be putting stuff together sufficiently well to feed a shoot and be informative, which is what you want to do.”
I’m having to raise my voice more to protect the film I’m making
Mick is positive about how much more accessible editing has become as a result of affordable software, but he does wonder if this might have diminished the status of editors. He complains that younger filmmakers sometimes fail to see editors as “someone who can see a film in their head and offer it to you as a director or a producer.” Finding that the voices around him are becoming louder and more numerous, he reports “I’m having to raise my voice more in order to protect, or further, what I believe to be the film that I’m making.”
Sprocket Rocket came out of Mick’s desire, and that of his friends, to bring post-production back together again. He’s keen to give young editors and assistants access to older and more experienced talent and believes that these are meetings from which both could gain. “It’s just a way of getting people together, which was very open, and if it was very open people’s natural agendas and concerns would come to the surface. When they met and they would share, you know, the diminishing wages and the increasing hours, increasing isolation, the increasing demands.”
He’s keen to emphasize that this is not a union: “It’s also for producers to come, this is not in any way exclusive; it’s open to people just wanting to hang out with other filmmakers really. My original brief was ‘A chance to influence other filmmakers who have no influence on your chances’. If there are some keen film students who’d like to spend an hour or two with a visual effects supervisor on a big gig, then they can have a drink together and make contact that way.” While he initially sees it as being for post-production, he’s happy for it to be open to shooting crew as well, observing that there is a gap between those two fields to be bridged. “I don’t want anything to be exclusive. It’s a good chance for a jolly. That sounds frivolous but if it is relaxed the serious side of it will happen naturally.”
The next Sprocket Rocket is on 27th September. Sign up on the website.
You can read a longer transcript of this interview here
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012
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