MI6 caught up with Academy Award winner Norman Wanstall to talk about his career as an editor and his work on the James Bond series...

Norman Wanstall Interview (1)
7th February 2008

How did you get started in the film industry - had you held many jobs before entering the movie business?
In 1949 I was a 14-year-old schoolboy, and I had a friend whose mother was the assistant to the Production Controller at Pinewood film studios. During the school holidays she invited a group of us to visit the studio and I was absolutely captivated by what I saw. The highlight of the day was being allowed onto one of the stages and watching Alan Ladd rehearsing a scene for the film ‘Hell Below Zero’. The set was the cabin of a ship and it looked totally realistic, but of course when we looked around at the back it was all made up of plywood and scaffold poles. The whole thing was make-believe and we loved it. It was a magical day and the memory of it stayed with me right through my schooldays.

After leaving school I spent two years doing my National Service, and when I returned to civilian life I contacted the lady at Pinewood and fortunately she remembered me. She invited me to the studio for a chat, and soon afterwards offered me a job as a trainee film editor.

Above: Norman Wanstall with his Academy Award for Sound Editing for Goldfinger

I jumped at the chance to work in the industry although at the time I had no idea what a film editor’s function was. I was put under contract for three years and by the end of that term I had moved up the promotion ladder and was the assistant to one of the sound-track editors (known as dubbing editors.)

I should point out that in those days (and for many years afterwards) film studios were basically factories. All the producers, directors, technicians, plasterers, carpenters, electricians and office staff were all permanently employed under contract, including some of the leading actors, and everyone turned up for work every day and went from one film to another. There were of course people who had left the studio system to work freelance, and they would invariably work in the studios on films brought in from abroad, or on independent films brought in from outside. It has been said that the studio system suffered from bureaucracy and therefore there wasn’t much scope for innovation and experimentation, but many fine films were made under the studio system and only after a technician had received a thorough training were they ever considered for promotion.

Probably the most accomplished and famous dubbing editor at that time was Winston Ryder, who had worked on numerous major movies including such prestigious tiles as Lawrence Of Arabia and Bridge On The River Kwai. Just as my 3-year contract at Pinewood was coming to an end it became known that Ryder was looking for a new assistant, and my colleagues at the studio suggested I would be the best man for the job. I subsequently left to go freelance and worked with Ryder on three major productions, the last of which was Sink the Bismarck edited by Peter Hunt.

How did you get involved with Bond and who did you work most closely with on those productions?
In spite of working extensively on the sound-track side of editing my ambition was not to become a dubbing editor but a film editor, so I asked Peter Hunt if he would consider me for a job as his assistant so that I could return to working with picture again. He took me on and we formed a good working relationship, and after four pictures together Peter was given Dr No to edit. The rest, of course, is history! The budget on Dr No was such that the production could not afford the two dubbing editors required for such a busy sound-track (one for dialogue and one for sound effects) so Peter promoted me to sound-effects editor and I continued in that role for the next four Bond pictures.

Even though Peter and I were still very much a team, I was left alone most of the time to concentrate on the assembling and creating of the sound-effects. As soon as shooting was completed I worked closely with the production sound recordist, going out with his crew to record the cars, motor-cycles, helicopters, autogyro etc. After that I teamed up with the studio sound mixer (Gordon McCullum), and together we created at an early stage many of the more complex sounds that involved mixing various components together.

Above: "This is one of my favourite pictures taken with the great Gordon McCullum who was the chief dubbing mixer on the first Bond movies. He and I worked very closely together creating the specialised sound effects, such as the electronic sliding doors, Oddjob’s flying hat and Dr No crushing the metal idol in his clawed hand. He was a very difficult man to work with but he loved the Bond movies and couldn’t wait for me to take tracks into his theatre for him to blend together."

You've had a spell as both an editor and a soundtrack editor, can you describe the responsibilities of both, how they compare, and which task do you prefer?
Even though I had a fair amount of success as a dubbing editor my sole ambition was to become a film editor. The film editor has so much more influence on the final outcome of the picture. Usually he comes onto the payroll prior to shooting and would discuss with the director any concerns he has about the script. If, during shooting he feels extra shots would enhance a scene, he would inform the director and if time allowed the director would shoot them.

From then on the editor is left alone to put the film together the way the director envisaged, and once the film is finally assembled (usually a week or two after the completion of shooting) he and the director will discuss each scene and decide where the film could be improved by making changes or trying new ideas.

You have to remember that because scenes are often shot from beginning to end from many different camera angles, the director on a major feature film such as a James Bond would shoot hundreds of thousands of feet of film. The final film that’s shown in the cinema would only be around thirteen thousand feet long, so you have some idea of the editor’s job in creating the best possible movie out of so much material.

You can see from the above that the director relies very much on the skill of the editor to get the best out of his material, and the editor has the satisfaction of knowing that the final look and pace of the film is very much his responsibility. It’s a fantastic job and commands a lot of respect from the rest of the crew, and I know that on all my film editing jobs I was able to contribute ideas and make my mark in some way. I must say I was very fortunate during the time I was working as Peter Hunt’s assistant, because he was only really interested in ‘fine cutting’ scenes where every cut had to be timed to perfection. He found the job of roughly assembling the scenes rather tedious, so he frequently let me put scenes together and then he would take over later to do the serious work. This gave me a lot of editing practice at an early stage so I was well prepared when my big break as a film editor finally arrived.

As regards the job of the soundtrack editor, I’ve realised over the years that people outside the industry do not understand that the picture and sound are totally separate throughout the making of a film, so they cannot easily comprehend what the job involves. Perhaps it would be helpful if I briefly explain the way a film is processed...

The first thing to remember is that the camera and sound crews are totally separate during shooting, and at times the sound recordist will be on the opposite side of the set to the camera. They are linked electronically for synchronisation but otherwise they work independently. At the end of each day’s shooting, the negative taken from the camera is sent to the laboratories and the tape from the sound recorder is sent to the sound department. The following day the positive picture comes back from the labs, and the sound-track comes back from the sound department transferred onto 35mm stock. The cutting-room staff then synchronise the two, and every roll is stored away in two cans, one sound and one picture.

Above: Norman Wanstall in the cutting room

By the time the editor has made his first assembly of the picture (known as the rough cut) there would be about 13 or 14 cans of film and the same number of cans of sound. The dubbing editor is able to assess each reel of sound in turn and decide which sections of the track can be used in the final film. In major action films such as the Bond movies, a very large percentage of the track has to be discarded and re-created from scratch. This involves re-recording all the different elements and mixing them back together again, so even a simple scene of two people talking as they walk along a street would involve replacing the dialogue, the sound of their footsteps and movements, the exterior atmospheres and the sound made by any other items that appear in the scene. One could easily end up with six to ten tracks for that one scene alone so you can imagine what is involved in replacing a battle scene or a car chase. The Bond's were a lot of work for me because all the boats, trains, planes, cars, motor-cycles, helicopters, autogiros, gadgets and underwater sounds etc. had to be re-recorded and replaced from scratch. Also I had to invent sounds for special-effects scenes such as the laser beam, Oddjob’s flying hat and the atomic machine in Dr No’s laboratory. Yet again of course many of the actors used in the early Bond's such as Ursula Andress and Gert Frobe were foreigners with strong accents, so they had to be re-voiced and all the scenes they were involved in had the sound replaced.

I must say that as a sound-track editor I was very fortunate to have the Bond's to work on because at least I could make a genuine creative contribution at times, but generally the job is relatively routine and cannot compare with the close involvement of the film editor.

Which have been your most memorable production thus far?
The film I worked on that I call my favourite was without doubt Ipcress File on which I worked as sound-track editor, but my most memorable film has to be the first film I edited which was called Joanna. Whilst working on the Bond's I was contacted by a popular singer/actor/writer called Mike Sarne, who had shot a short film called Road to St Tropez but hadn’t been able to afford a sound crew. I liked the guy so much I put a track on the film for him free of charge, and as a result we became close friends.

Some time later he was given the chance by 20th Century Fox to direct his own script (Joanna) and he rewarded me by giving me the chance to edit it. It was a swinging sixties story and was unfortunately panned by the critics, but with Mike’s encouragement I’d applied a very stylised type of editing which was rare in those days and it got me noticed. The critics picked up on it and other directors became interested and even the great Norman Jewison flew me back from Denmark for an interview and short-listed me for Fiddler On The Roof. Without doubt Joanna was my most memorable project because it was a huge stepping stone in my career and enabled me to follow my ambition of becoming a respected film editor.

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Many thanks to Norman Wanstall. All pictures courtesy Norman Wanstall.