Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Kaleidoscope: Editing Rollerball's Multivision sequences – Brian Smedley-Aston in conversation

Brian Smedley-Aston, only son of successful British film producer Michael Smedley-Aston, was born in 1935. After National Service and a year in the merchant marine, Smedley-Aston expressed such a commitment to joining the film industry that his father, initially dissuasive, lent his support. Starting as an editor, with work on films including Girl With Green Eyes, cult horror Symptoms and Donald Cammell’s acclaimed Performance, Smedley-Aston moved on to producing. Still an avid cinema-goer, Smedley-Aston lives in London with his wife.

Brian, hello; thanks for talking about your work on Rollerball
I don’t think there’ve been many films with a credit for ‘Multivision sequences’…

You’d worked with Anthony Gibbs before, hadn’t you?
Very much. I was his assistant on Tom Jones.

How did you get into Rollerball?
He asked me. He knew he’d be busy with the main unit material and so he wanted an editor whose work he knew, and he trusted, and I said yep. The first picture I worked with Tony on as second assistant editor was Oscar Wilde. Then I became his first assistant, with my first screen credit, on The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I was his first assistant on Tom Jones, which won the Oscar that year.

So a good progression for you?
Absolutely. It was very hidebound, sort of like an apprenticeship system in those days, the sixties […] I was very lucky; Tony Gibbs was a marvellous editor and a very nice man, and he sort of broke the rule book – he said ‘he can do it, let’s give him a chance’. So I was cutting my first feature film at the age of 25, which is quite rare.

How much direction did you receive on Rollerball? I assumed they must have given you some kind of steer as to the varying mood - lyrical, action?
Oh definitely. I think you used one of the words – ‘lyrical’ – [when Jonathan E. is] at home with Maud Adams, with the Albinoni, and ‘exciting’, they said, for the Rollerball [scenes], and they let me get on with it. I would show them stuff and they would say fine, or can that be a little jazzier or why don’t we try a freeze-frame there…

The sequences use stills, slow motion and so on across several screens
Yes. [To] create an overall effect, basically. And you were right, in your piece, when you said it was 16mm projectors, which is why it was quite a feat, because you had to cut the negative and have a joined-up 16mm print, ready for projection [during the Pinewood shoot that followed], and have two or three, because, you know, they’re fiddly things and they break, sometimes […] There was one time when there were about sixteen projectors going at the same time.

And of course you had to have four, one for each screen…
Right. And they had to be synchronised.

Exactly. And so my obvious question is, how on earth did you keep track of that, because I’m assuming you’re only cutting one at a time?
Oh yes, very much so.

So how do you keep track of which one’s telling which part of the story?
Well, it’s a bit like – have you ever seen a dubbing chart for when people go into the theatre to put all the sound on? You might have up to ten tracks, and the footage, so you’ve got to have all these different tracks [set out visually] because all these things happen at the same time. And so I did a little chart of what was happening on one, and the footage that linked, and what would happen on the others, and balanced them accordingly.

And you did that diagrammatically?
Yes and finally you run it through – have you ever seen a synchroniser? They probably don’t have them in cutting rooms now. A synchroniser is a piece of [machinery] with 35mm cog wheels on it, and you wind it through the cutting bench; in my day you had a horse, a big metal thing that you put the spools on, a couple of linen bins and cut-outs in the bench, a synchroniser in the middle and a rewind at the end. And you could wind the film through the synchroniser and see – I mean if you’re familiar with film – you actually look down and you could see how they’re coming up together, all the images, so that helped too, I used that quite a lot.

If you’re only looking at one strand at a time, you’ve got to know what you’re intending to do with the other three or what you have done
Yes. A lot of trial and error too, when you realise that a change would be much more effective; you suddenly have the cannon firing instead of someone just skating with the ball. And of course the dominant screen was the most important, with the other ones [subsidiary].

Did you do that main screen first, do you remember?
Yes, definitely. First one first, the main screen, and also on this synchroniser was a pic sync. The first strand on the four-gang synchroniser is nearly always picture and the other three gangs are usually magnetic sound – I used to run the picture through them as well – but the first one, the one that’s normally used for picture, there’s a little screen on the synchroniser, so you can actually see it. But with practice you can almost run it through at movie speed with your hand, and so that was the prime thing, once I’d got that set up, I would say ooh, you know, let’s have a motorbike going into flames on that one!

You would have had to remember any given strand whilst doing the other…
I’d have to hold it in my head, really.

That must have been incredibly challenging
Well you know, it was sort of hit and miss. I mean there was no way, until it actually got onto the set, that one had actually seen everything, but there was a fairly fair – I think a good enough – indication. [..] I was saying right, main screen, screen 1, screen 2, screen 3, this is what’s happening, when that bike goes into flames, that actually coincides with a big close-up of Jonathan calmly doing a circuit of the ring, as a contrast... And I would point out the way I envisaged it to Norman and Tony, and there was no way of checking it, until it happened. On the day they were very pleased!

How long were those sequences?
I think the longest was about two and a half minutes.

And of course all that had to be done before the relevant principal photography so that it could be included in it…
Yes, that’s right. I couldn’t touch any of the prime game stuff for the main picture, that wouldn’t be cut for several months. I had to cut [mine though] quite quickly. I had my cutting room in Munich, while they were doing it, under the basketball court. The footage came with the daily rushes, it was earmarked, ‘this is Brian’s footage.’ [I’d] play with it, show it to Norman and Tony, and get the negative cut. […] They’re all a little different – no two clashes are exactly the same, and so on, but there were some very good stunt performers.

Did you use any previous split screen films for reference, like The Thomas Crown Affair or The Boston Strangler?
No, I didn’t actually. Editing of course is technical, but also it’s intuitive, so you’ve got to abide by grammar to some extent but I find that even with a dialogue scene, suddenly you’ll get an inspiration – instead of waiting until someone finishes a sentence, let’s cut away in the middle. Often it’s a jar and it doesn’t work, because you’ve broken a barrier; sometimes it’s very effective.

What about the sound?
My work was absolutely mute. I didn’t stay with the picture all the time; I stayed with it for the shooting period. That was all done subsequently. [I] had to be finished before the move from Munich and the Rollerball track back to Pinewood. I think it was a twelve-week schedule and I think we had about six weeks in Munich. That was fascinating, those stuntmen; they had very vicious card games, high stakes poker. We were working away on our Moviolas and could hear them above. [Composer Andre Previn] had to choose the music, but what he also had to do was compose the national anthems.

Brian, thank you. You have an incredible memory of this!
It was a nice, a good experience, that; I remember it well.

With thanks to Brian Smedley-Aston. Based on a discussion that took place at the Langham Hotel, London on 21 April 2016. Screenshots taken from the 2004 MGM Home Entertainment DVD release

Read The Harmony of Havoc, my piece on the wider making and meaning of Rollerball for Excuses and Half Truths (and follow the link to a podcast discussion of the film), and enjoy my imagined pre-match Multivision commentary before the final game written for The Big Picture.

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