PB member, Guy Ducker, talks to veteran film editor, Mick Audsley, about the vast changes in editing from when he first entered the industry in the 70s, through the delights and perils of the digital age and with it job insecurity.
Mick Audsley has edited everything from My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liaisons to 12 Monkeys and Harry Potter & 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.
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. 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 not just 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 learnt 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 learnt 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.”
Mick switched to cutting digitally when editing 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 possible piracy – 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.”
Mick is positive about how much more accessible editing has become as 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.”
Mick is 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. “It’s a good chance for a jolly. That sounds frivolous but if it is relaxed the serious side of it will happen naturally.”
Mick Audsley is currently cutting Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, the story of Ali’s fight against the Vietnam draft, directed by Stephen Frears for HBO.
Read Guy Ducker’s Tales From the Cutting Room Floor