“I love commercials,” says Sue Moles towards the end of her Desert Island Clips interview. “I do, I just love them.” She’s explaining why she feels embarrassed that she’s not more knowledgeable about feature films. It isn’t because she doesn’t love movies... she does. It’s just that she loves commercials more.
It says a great deal about her that she’s able to maintain so much love for the advertising business a quarter of a century after she set up the editing company where she plies her trade. There’s no getting away from the fact that she’s a veteran – before setting up Sue Moles Editing in 1987, she served an eight year apprenticeship with a variety of different companies – but it’s fantastically hard to believe. She exudes vitality of the most youthful hue and even though this is offset by occasional displays of battle-weary cynicism, the abiding impression is one of unquenchable enthusiasm.
Moles has witnessed a lot of changes over the years. When she started, the tools of her trade were scissors, sticky tape, notebooks, pens and a prodigious memory. When editing moved to computers, she knew she was going to have to learn a whole new skill set but admits that it wasn’t easy to adapt – an expensive Apple Mac sat in her office for over a year before she took the plunge and switched it on for the first time.
Although her father worked in the business as a client, her route into the advertising world was indirect. She worked in the Thames Water Authority’s press office during the 1976 drought and found the stressful environment surprisingly stimulating: “I was only doing work experience but I had six phones on my desk and they were ringing all the time – it was really manic. One day I said something to somebody – you know, off the record – and that night I saw myself quoted as ‘a Thames Water spokesperson’ and I thought ‘oh my God!’” The excitement got to her.
An administrative role at the Institute of Electrical Engineers couldn’t match the heady days of the drought crisis and Moles was desperate to find something “less boring”. An admin job at an editing company provided the opportunity she was looking for. Although she was employed for her secretarial skills, she had a go at editing one evening and discovered she was a natural. She was so delighted to discover there was something she could do that other people couldn’t, that she decided she’d found her calling.
The first of Moles’s selections – a US ad for Lincoln cars called ‘Art Gallery’ – is one she worked on as an assistant editor. She was struck by the originality of director Howard Guard’s approach: “In all the time I worked with Howard, I don’t remember there ever being a script he stuck to. His ideas were so fresh and different and, of course, in that era, everything had to be done in camera.” Guard’s methods required a close working relationship with his editor and Moles relished this one-on-one collaboration.
In fact, she’s enormously grateful that she had the opportunity to work during the 1980s, which she describes as “a prolific time for fantastic work... we had David Abbott, John Webster, the ads had jingles, they had strap-lines, they had comedy, and above all, it wasn’t pan-European.”
More than anything, Moles’s fondness for that era is based on the abundance of work: “We’d be sent the same script by five different companies so we knew that whoever won the job, we’d get to edit it.”
Asked whether directors are less dependent on editors now that they can watch footage as soon as it’s been shot and possess the tools to edit their own rough cut, Moles is equivocal: “Sort of. It still comes back to us at the end of the day – they might say ‘I’ve put this cut together on my computer’ and we might think ‘that’s really useful’, but it’s still not what the final thing is going to be. It’s just an idea of how they saw it working.”
Not only is John Webster’s seminal commercial for the Guardian a brilliant piece of advertising, Moles feels that it speaks volumes about the power of editing. “Once you’ve seen it, you realise that you should question everything. It’s always a matter of someone’s interpretation of a situation and it offers a perfect example of how an editor can emphasise a particular viewpoint.”
Like everyone who has worked with Tony Kaye, Moles has clearly had some bruising experiences but she nonetheless holds him in high esteem.
“I had a 45 second long commercial of his for nine months,” she says as she describes how she had to rearrange the furniture in her offices to accommodate all the cans of film. “He’d come in at night, look at the cut and say ‘yeah, that’s great, I just wonder if we could try...’ and this went on for nine months – on a one-edit fee which was about a grand. It wasn’t until the agency took it away from him that it got finished; and that was so often the way with Tony.”
Kaye’s extraordinary profligacy started on location: “He’d shoot some beautiful stuff but he used to just leave the camera running. He’d literally put a 1,000 foot roll of film through the camera to see if anything interesting happened while he was away having his lunch, and that’s when he’d sometimes capture something amazing but someone has to have enough time to sit down and look at all of it, and that’s not going to be Tony Kaye.”
‘Expect the Unexpected’ is remembered as much for the choice of music – ‘Venus In Furs’ by The Velvet Underground – as it is for the extraordinary imagery captured by Kaye. But despite the obvious advantage it would give Moles and other editors, they are seldom told what music is going to be used until they’ve finished editing: “We don’t even get a click track. It’s nuts. The music should be at the core of it.”
This commercial was famously a single take so what was the role of the editor? “People have asked me that before when I’ve had one-shot commercials on my reel... and I have to say to them that it’s never really just ‘one shot’. There’s loads to do with a job like that. It never just comes out of the camera looking like that.”
Moles laughs as she recalls this exquisite spoof, which she says is so funny in its own right that the viewer can appreciate it even if they’re not familiar with the perfume ads it pokes fun at.
Given the importance of timing to comedy, does she think editors need to have a good sense of humour? Comedy actor David Jason once told her that comic timing cannot be learned – people either have it or they don’t, but Moles is less dogmatic: “It is difficult, but you can often do it two ways – but you do need to know what works. Sadly, it’s not something we get to practice as much as we used to.”
She concedes that bad editing can kill a joke and recalls seeing a recent BBC trail that really shocked her with its ineptitude: “Editing is something you often only notice when it’s gone wrong; when it’s done well, the last thing it should do is stand out.”
But what can an editor do if the source material is not up to scratch? Her answer is surprising and reveals that she was once seen as the Red Adair of commercials editing: “I used to get a lot of jobs that had been taken away from other editors because they couldn’t get the cut to work. I won an award for something that was shot by a new director that someone had said was ‘uncuttable’ and had refused to work on.”
At the time, Moles was largely occupied with editing the Daz ‘doorstep challenge’ campaign, which she describes as an immense logistical nightmare because of the way it was filmed, and even though she laughs with embarrassment at herself for saying it, she says she’s hugely proud of the work as it was so challenging.
Crucially, it provided great training for those ‘uncuttable’ jobs, and Moles holds the view that there is no such thing because “a good editor is, ultimately, someone who can make a good film out of something bad.”
Moles points out that the editor’s emotional distance from the project can be hugely helpful: “A director might want a particular shot included because they love it and a producer might want to use a particular shot because they know how much it cost to film it, but it’s the editor’s job to tell them if those shots aren’t needed – and that’s easier to do if you haven’t been involved with any of the earlier conversations.”
Chris Palmer’s road safety film brilliantly demonstrated how hard it is to concentrate on more than one thing at a time and Moles feels that the ‘trick’ could have been completely undone if the editing wasn’t perfect.
It prompts her to describe the late nights she’s spent alone trying ‘one last thing’ after another to make sure she achieves the best possible outcome. It is, she says, a necessarily solitary experience and she never asks her assistants to work alongside her. “It’s not fair to ask anyone to stay with you because there’s always something else you can try and that’s what you do, because you love it.”
Moles feels sorry for young people coming into the business today. She describes speaking to aspiring film-makers at an event celebrating the best new ‘virals’ and being taken aback by everyone’s inability to ply their trade profitably. “None of them are making money,” she says ruefully. One young man told her how he worked in a chemist for weeks at a time until he had enough money for a few days of filming. “It’s really depressing – there’s a whole generation of people who can’t get paid for what they can do. It’s just wrong.”
At the event there was a Q&A with RSA’s Johnny Hardstaff and Casper Delaney who had recently made a pair of virals promoting ‘Prometheus’ – a movie with a huge marketing budget which was directed, of course, by Ridley Scott – the founder of the company where Hardstaff and Delaney work. “Johnny and Casper said it was challenging [to make it for very little money] and I just couldn’t help myself... I asked ‘could you make a living out of films like this?’ and of course they said they couldn’t, but because it was for Ridley they were always going to do it... but what I wanted to know was why it wasn’t in the budget. Why are the people who make these virals expected to pay for them?”
“I must be a bit slushy at heart because I adore both this film and Romeo and Juliet which it’s based on. It’s my all-time favourite film and I could choose just about any scene from it. I think it’s fantastic.”
It’s at this point that Moles apologises for not knowing more about feature films – she admits that she’s amazed when other editors reveal that they study movies in great detail to deconstruct the editing and emits an embarrassed laugh because she just can’t relate to their obsessive dedication. She doesn’t need to excuse herself – her passion for her craft is second to none – and she doesn’t have to be a film buff to prove it. Besides, she loves commercials... she does... she just loves them.