NOTE: Series 2 of The Thick Of It starts Saturday 26 October on BBC TWO
I've known Billy Sneddon, editor of In The Loop and The Thick of It (amongst many others) since his work on Green Wing, where he was one of the many shifts of off-line editors who traipsed in young and fresh, only to emerge bitter broken husks of men (they were all men, I did check).
As a writer, you tend not to see editors until many months after your own participation in whatever project it is has finished, and you pop back into the office because you forgot your favourite pen or whatever, and there the editors are, hunched and mumbling, pressing random button and slurping ultr-strength coffee while they blink in the reflected glow of monitors where the actors are busy saying all your words in completely the wrong way.
Basically, editing has always seemed something of a dark art to me, so I thought I'd ask him some questions about how it actually worked. Most of the questions sourced by you, the kind readers of the blog.
How does one become an editor?
There aren't any hard and fast rules about this. I have a degree in Botany but absolutely no qualifications relevant to the job! Although TV and Film is a more difficult industry to break into than most, it's all about how much effort you are willing to put in to make it happen. The first step is to try and get a position as a runner, which is the most junior position in the industry, basically a general gofer/tea-maker. For editing, the best places to try for are post production companies. They'll barely pay you enough money to stay alive, but you'll get to make lots of useful contacts. The important thing is to try and find yourself somewhere you can have access to equipment, which is mainly Avid based, and to a lesser extent Final Cut Pro. Then you want to use as much down time as you can to learn how these systems work. I taught myself how to work an Avid Media Composer, just by sitting in front of it, poring over the manuals for several months. Once you've done that, you can get work as a digitizer/assistant. This is the person who comes in late at night when the editor has finished and loads all the footage from the previous day onto the system.
How does one approach being considered for an editing position?
Funnily enough I've never done any self promotion, ever! I don't even have an agent...
I think, because I have specialized in a particular area (comedy) most directors/producers network with each other about who's worth hiring. I'm so old I know everyone already anyway! Occasionally I get 'interviewed' but must be rubbish in that situation because I've never got a job that way. I've been told a good thing is to research what productions are coming up using things like imdb pro, and then contacting the principles. Also, if you've seen something you like why not write them a groveling letter? Everyone loves flattery...
Does one have to use the video editing in-house, or can one do it from elsewhere? (i.e. on a laptop or from a home PC)
I have my own system which is Avid Media Composer Adrenaline, so I always try and use that, but it could go anywhere, I've done jobs in my spare room before. It depends on budget, but generally there's a professional level of equipment you need to have, and Avid is pretty much the industry standard. As to where you do it, that depends on the preference of who you are working for. Most of the time I get given a room in the production company offices, or they rent me a room somewhere in Soho.
How does one approach editing TV rather than Film? What difficulties/advantages are there to each one?
The longer a piece is, the more challenges come up in terms of things like structure and pace. Most tv comedy is half an hour, so you don't have the luxury of too much characterisation or exposition, you have to hit the ground running. For In The Loop we decided to tone down the handheld camera work and jump cuts etc, in case it might be slightly nausea inducing on the big screen! Wide shots have a greater variety of uses on a big screen. On tv they tend to be used mostly for establishing shots. Also, because TV schedules and budgets are tighter, you don't get as much time to finesse it, so you are more likely to go with first instincts. Of course in film you have more time to get sick looking at it too. Now i know why Woody Allen never watches his films again after they are made...
In TV, is it common for editors to be on set or strictly banished to the editing room?
It varies actually, but the last few jobs I've done have involved having a makeshift cutting room on set, so that any problems can be addressed quickly, and they can check how things are coming together more easily. I actually don't like being on set much, as you get a never ending torrent of people sticking their heads round the door wondering how it's looking! i'd much rather be tucked up in a warm soho office than a field in god knows where.
When editing comedy (especially stand-up), is the question of what jokes are cut left up to your judgment as editor? If so, is your sense of humour one of the reasons why you tend to get hired for these things...?
It's a collaborative process, but of course I don't have final say over a producer or director, but part of the job is to be gently persuasive. It's rare to have a major disagreement though, the idea is to understand what a director/producer is looking for, and then give them something better than what they were expecting. Often as an editor, you can bring a fresh perspective, your point of view isn't affected by how difficult the shooting circumstances were etc, in a way you are representing the viewer and should find it easier to make the often brutal decisions that have to be made. Billy Connolly is fascinating to edit, because no two shows are the same, he really does make it up as he goes along, so you end up with a huge supply of material to choose from.
When you tell people what you do for a living, do they think you use big scissors? Do you, in fact, use big scissors?
They either think i work in a newspaper, or else just glaze over completely and go and find someone more interesting. (Billy leaves the question of his 'big scissors tantalizingly unanswered, note. Ed.)
What was the ratio of rushes to finished film for In The Loop? Were you wading through loads of options or was it quite tightly laid out?
It was huuuge. The first assembly cut was four and a half hours long. We could have made about 6 different films out of the footage. It was a great challenge though, because you are basically making the film in the edit in a situation like that. It's the same approach as the thick of it, each episode of that can start out at anything up to an hour and a half, boiled down to 30 mins in the edit. The trick is to get the story/jokes balance just right. You've got to get the blinkers on and zone right in on what's important...
During editing did you show the movie to other people to assess how it was playing? Professionals or punters? What did you learn?
We had a screening for some industry people, and another test screening for regular punters.
These things are very useful for discovering what's clear in the story, because you get very close to it very quickly, and can miss things or assume too much.
You can learn a lot just by sitting in a cinema with an audience, you suddenly can feel areas that are slack in pace, or jokes that fall flat. For the punters screening they were given forms to fill out afterwards and my favourite was one guy who answered the question 'Was there anything about the film that you didn't like?' He said 'Yes, the cinema was too cold.'
Has the success of In the Loop been good for your career?
Well I got another film straight away, but I think that was coincedence, like waiting for a bus, 2 come along at once. There is definitely a degree of snobbery from the film world towards tv, but i think that is changing, there's more crossover in both directions these days so hopefully I'll get to work on more films in future. It was brilliant to see Chris Dickens blaze a trail from 'At Home with the Braithwaites' all the way to this years Oscar. There's hope for the rest of us!
Is there is a sort of editing leitmotif for In The Thick Of It (or In The Loop); a decidedly characteristic editing style that accompanies each character (e.g. frantic and choppy for Malcolm, static and repressed for Glenn etc.), or if it is entirely reliant on the nature of the scene?
There isn't any predetermined style that is character related, but of course a lot of Malcolm's material can be a little more energetic! That means we have more license to do unconventional things with him in the edit, like jump cutting him around the room etc. Most of the attention in the edit is focused on trying to include the very best performances available, on a line by line basis. In the first instance I will often try to achieve this without paying as much attention to shot composition or trying to create smooth cuts. I've found that if the performance is authentic and you get the rhythm and pace right, how it actually looks becomes less important. I suppose the old cliche about timing being everything in comedy is only a cliche because it's true. Before we started the first series Armando made it clear he wanted to get away from the traditional sitcom feeling and go for that stripped down uncompromising look you get in the dogma films. After watching a few I started to realise that whilst jump cuts and energetic cutting techniques were used to create an effect, often it seemed to be fairly random as well. In a nutshell it became clear once we started that if the only way to join the best two bits together without using a reaction shot or a cutaway is to make a jump cut, then that's what we should do. It goes back to the thing about pace, often you see a jump cut simply because we've cut out a pause, nothing more.
And last from me: one thing I really enjoyed about In The Loop was that it didn't feel like an awkward transition from television to film: in the start, at least, it didn't seem all that different in style from The Thick Of It. But then as the story progressed it did start to feel weightier, more cinematic, part of this being due to a musical score being introduced, which I'm fairly sure has never appeared in the television series. Was the addition of music decided from the start, or something that was added later in the day? Is working with musical scores a big part of your job? And do you have any say in the music, or is that really the decision of a producer like Armando, and you have to find a way to fit it in?
The only thing that was planned about the music was that James Smith's character, Michael, would always have classical music playing in his office, as that's actually part of the script. There wasn't going to be any other music, as Armando didn't want to move too far away from the formula that made the tv version work. It was only as the edit progressed that we started to explore whether if music was introduced in the U.N. it might help the urgency and highlight the feeling that things were coming to a climax in the story. Also, in the tv version there is virtually no time where people aren't talking to each other at 100 miles an hour, but there were a few opportunities in the film where music could do a job, like in the travelling to Washington sequence. So what happened was the musician Adem Ilhan came up with a piece that he broke down into individual elements, so I had percussion tracks, strings tracks etc etc, so I could edit them and place them in pretty precisely. Normally you would edit with a guide track and the music would be written and placed after picture lock, so it was great to have a high degree of input at an early stage.
The process was quite similar to Green Wing actually, where lots of tracks were provided up front so we could work with them in the edit. Music is usually a big part of the editors job in tv, because they don't have the budget to employ specialist music editors like they do in filmland. As far as who's decision it is, it's the same as with every other decision, I do it the way I think it should be, and the Director decides if I'm right or not!