By Sofía Mellino
Barrie Vince is a British film editor born in 1933 in London, UK. He has edited more than thirty-seven motion pictures and documentaries in film and digital format and even won a BAFTA in Best TV Editing for his work in «Hillsborough» on 1996. Also, he has worked with well-known actors and actresses such as Maggie Smith, Jeremy Irons and Billy Connolly among others.
Beyond being considered a high valued film editor, he has also dedicated his life to convey the knowledge to the new generations at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), The London Film School (LFS) and other film institutions from the UK and Norway.
With more than forty years of career and at his eighty-three years old he is still teaching to the new generations full of energy and passion just like his first day.
And this is how I met him. Thanks to my parents and a scholarship won from the National Arts Fund (FNA) I had the opportunity to study a Postgraduate film editing workshop at The London Film School (LFS). A study abroad journey that I tried to make real for so many years, where I had all my expectations but that ended up being an completely different experience from what I expected. «What I’m going to do with you if you know it all?» he told me. But he was wrong. I was lack of his subjectivity and experience as I’m still lack of so many more from others colleagues around the world. I was lack of an «old school» editing point of view, the kind that conceives cutting before properly cutting the rushes. «The process of editing originates in our head and it directly depends from what we have lived in our lives» he said while he shared with us lots of pages and manuscripts that are part of a large editing process he makes before even adding a cut into the timeline. As if montage was an investigation process full of steps, getting to know your case of study, collecting and analysing data is how his methodology works. A process full of maps, charts and a perfect draw with ruler script indicating the duration of every shoot and take from top to end. And that is something that he obviously teaches you at the postgraduate workshop, with patience, a lot of patience, he teaches you how to reach the structure the director would like to see. Trying to achieve a first rough cut where you give birth to the general structure. A process where you must forget about the immediate dedication of getting a soft cut in order to be able to identify which is the story we have to tell to the audience, the subtext of the dialogue and the importance of it. “The cut should be made at the end of the dialogue between the axis of these two characters” he said while we were editing as case of study the scene 80 from “The Lieutenant’s woman”, a film by Karel Reisz. A scene which consists of pure dialogues between five characters, you can imagine the trouble of editing that kind of scene.
Me, obsessive with detailed cuts, defender of the cinematic romance, an editor that needed to highlight the gazes on a first rough cut between the two main characters (Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons) while another conversation was taking place, because they were falling in love in the next scenes was my excuse, found this exercise a before and after experience. “First we set up the dramatic structure then the detailed cut” was my new motto from Barry Vince. And after giving us the chance of editing the scene, he then showed us the original result from Karel Reisz’s film. A bright and full color version totally different from our rushes. A scene full of infinity lightning cuts that made you feel dizzy and did not let you understand what they were saying. That is the moment that you realize how right he is. As he says, “The most important thing is the story”.
Barry thinks that there is no matter on cutting in the most traditional way, we don’t have to be always original with the editing. “People do not watch a film because of the editing, they watch them because they want to see a story and if that story is told in a cutting mix we lose them”.
So if you are thinking this was a great experience for me, you are correct. Not only for all the theoretical and practical content obtained but also because I had the chance to witness that our profession is the same everywhere. We can work with different kinds of software, we can conceive and arrive to different final cuts beside working with the same rushes, we can believe that editing was invented by Griffith, Smith, the Russians or the blink (it doesn’t matter where you go, every place has their own theory). We can agree to cross or not to cross the line, we can fight for death if is it better to go for a cut, dissolve or an infinite black. We can decide to be called film editors, video editors or audio-visual editors. But at the end of the day we all have a common goal, no matter if you come from Argentina, London or Timbuktu, to defend with our hearts and brains the future audience and the story they are going to watch.
Barry Vince Interview
How did you join the film business and why did you become an editor?
Simply luck. I was not very happy in the job I was doing after I had completed my National Service. I visited an old school friend of mine who had just started work as a director in the film department of a new local independent television station. I asked him if there was any work that I might do in television. He said that the department was firing the assistant editor and that if I wanted the job I could have it. I had no idea what editors or their assistants did at that point. When he showed me the next day I decided that it was worthwhile the gamble.
What are your procedures when starting editing new fiction project?
The first and most important step is to read the script, understand what the subtext is, analyse the structure of the story and the function of each of the scenes.
The job is to map the material I’m given onto the story. I need to learn the material as though it were a new language which involves viewing the rushes, shortlisting, marking up the script, analysing the shooting of the scene, breaking it down into manageable dramatic sections, then working out which shots are appropriate to each step of the dramatic development.
Are they the same for non-fiction?
Essentially they are the same. The filmmakers have to find the story; it may not be the one that they thought they were getting but on reflection they should see a connection between what interested them whenever they turned the camera on and what might engage the audience, which will turn out to be a story. The editor has to learn the material and map it onto the story in much the same way as he or she does wth a piece of fiction.
Which element is essential for you when editing fiction?
It has to be subtext. When I choose to edit a film it is because I feel that it is about something. If there is no substantial subtext you have no reason doing one thing or another with the material.
Have you had a sleepless night in order to finish an editing sequence?
The only times I have worked through the night have been when it is not been possible to make all the alterations necessary before screening unless I did so. Although I always met the deadline, the lack of sleep meant that I was then unable to view the film as a normal member of the audience. The screening was therefore a waste of time as far as I was concerned.
What do you think the relationship between editor and director should be? What attitude should the editor have when working with the director?
Since filmmaking is a collaborative effort the director and editor, like all the other members of the film crew, should have mutual respect as they work towards realising the best possible film to be made from the script and material. They should both be able to discuss potential material and the problems that might appear during fine cutting objectively. Occasionally the editor may be convinced that the director’s strategies are not in the best interests of the film but will have to accept that the director’s stake in the film is much higher than the editors and accede to his or her wishes.
How did you experience moving from moviola to digital editing?
One of the designers of the digital editing system called Lightworks, developed in competition with Avid, was a graduate of the National Film and Television School whom I knew quite well. The difference between the two systems was that Avid was designed as an alternative to tape editing and was best suited to those who are already fluent with computers, whilst Lightworks was designed for film editors, most of whom had little or no experience of computers.
One of the major features of Lightworks is that it has console control very similar to that of a Steenbeck flatbed editing machine with a joystick and a few buttons for the basic processes of assembling an edit and adjusting the cuts and sync. The icons on the screen can be positioned wherever you choose, so you can create your own cutting room space. You don’t need to use the keyboard or mouse most of the processes.
I was briefly involved in responding to a prototype and a short while after cut the first drama to be edited digitally for the BBC, Running Late written by Simon Gray, directed by Udayan Prasad.
Do you think the way of conceiving and putting editing into practise has changed with all the new tools from the digital era?
First, I need to say that between 1992 and 2005 I edited eight films digitally, (including Hillsborough,for which I was awarded my BAFTA) and thoroughly enjoyed the process, since I used the machinery in the same way that I edited on film.
However I must admit that, for a complex of reasons, digital editing has resulted in the status of the editor being downgraded and that the quality of editing, especially in British TV drama, is very often dire. All the new digital tools seem to have distracted far too many people from the basic principles of storytelling on film.
How do you find your second role as a teacher?
In the early 1970s I became aware that I had been very lucky to have learnt my craft in what was at least the silver age of filmmaking and I thought there was a possibility that lessons I had learnt from masters of that period might be lost. I felt very honoured to be accepted by the National Film and Television School as the third Head of Editing in 1975. For the next 18 years I alternated between teaching and editing and found a great deal of what I had learnt from the teaching improved my own editing.
In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, the hero, Hector, has a motto “Pass it on”. I have adopted this as my own motto and am very grateful to be able to continue teaching.
Have you any recommendations for future generations of editors?
Read the great classic novels and short stories, as Kurasowa recommended, go to the theatre, live life to the full, for it is your own specific experience which will give you your voice. And don’t get seduced by all the new digital tools. Keep it simple.