1 Mar 2020

Annie Collins: Legendary Kiwi film editor

From Standing Room Only, 1:33 pm on 1 March 2020

Since the 1970s film editor Annie Collins has been helping New Zealand directors bring their ideas to life.

Collins worked closely with the late Māori documentary maker Merata Mita, she worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the popular documentary Gardening with Soul about Sister Loyola Galvin, and on three films with Robert Sarkies including Scarfies.

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Photo: Screenshot

At the start of her career, Collins was sound effects editor on the Kiwi feature film Sleeping Dogs, and also worked on the sound edit of the original Goodbye Pork Pie.

Collins’ contribution to our film industry sees her being inducted into the Massey University Hall of Fame this week, alongside photographer Anne Noble, musician Jon Toogood and arts educator Gordon Tovey.

She told Lynn Freeman that when she started out in her career 40 years’ ago, there were few avenues available to her.

“I didn't have an apprenticeship at the National Film Unit, they were not in the least bit interested in me when I started out, nor was television and nor was Pacific films that were the only places you could go to in Wellington.

“That's where the Wellington Polytechnic came in because the tutor that we had in our last year [of graphic design], who was taking us through film, that tutor asked me at the end of the year, what are you going to be? And I said ‘I have no idea, I’m a bloody awful designer’ So he said, I think you should try editing, you should try film.”

Having knocked on various doors with no luck, she went back to that tutor, Pat Cox, for advice.

“He said I'm just starting out as an independent editing service in Wellington, he was the first in the country to my knowledge, and he said, if you can keep yourself alive, I'll train you. And that's what we did.”

Collins learned as she worked, she says and got a big break when Cox suggested she could work on the soundtrack for the film Sleeping Dogs.

“I didn't know what he was talking about, but off I went.”

Collins says she is as passionate about film editing as she ever was.

"It's very challenging and if there is some sort of essence, or feel within that footage, it really gives you something to get your teeth into. So, I don't mind when I get really rough-looking stuff coming through it makes you work your way around it.”

Annie Collins

Annie Collins Photo: Screenshot

Always learning something new keeps her fresh, she says.

"I still love it. Part of that is because I’ve tried for the last five or ten years to take on jobs, projects, where I'm actually going to be learning something, because what is the point if I'm not still learning?”

She is not an editor who likes to be on set while a film is being shot, she says.

“I'm one of the editors who never goes on set and the reason I don't do that is because all of the stuff that goes on, the waiting around, the waiting for the light to change, the freezing cold, all that sort of stuff, that colours how I see the footage.”

The first time she sees any footage is in the editing suite.

“When I first see those images come up, my eyes are completely fresh. And I just have a response to the shots just as you would as audience sitting for the first time with the finished film. And so that first response that I have is the most critical information that I can get about the footage that I'm working with.”

That distance from the set and script also gives her insight into choosing takes, she says.

“The assumption is there that the last one’s [take] the best one, if you've got seven takes or something, it could be that the director has called for take four and six. Those are what we call the print takes.

“I take a certain amount of notice of that, but not a lot. I have to look at everything. Because, and this is where the fresh eyes come in, a director has been living with a script sometimes for up to five years and they're looking for what they are trying to get into the frame and from the performance.

“I don't have any of that stacked up in my head. All I'm doing is looking at images I've never seen before, performances I've never seen before. And so quite often I will pick up things from a take which the director has discarded.”

The script is a “working document”, Collins says.

“It tells the director and the crew what they are there to shoot, it doesn't necessarily tell me how to get the emotion into scenes, it doesn't tell me how to make that story actually work.

“Because words on paper are very different from the essence of images, they have a quality all their own. And so, I watch for that quality.”

The quality of her relationship with the director of a film is paramount, she says.

The relationship is more important than anything else; almost anything else. And it's more important than whether I liked the film or not. And I find that trust is the most important element out of that relationship.

"When I'm working with somebody I haven't worked with before. I am trying to have time with them before the shoot starts, so that I get a feel of how they're working and how they're thinking.”

That helps build trust, particularly with a relatively inexperienced director, she says.

“I don't jump in with a new director and overlay what they're trying to do with ‘all my years of experience’, because actually, they could be doing something, and I hope they're doing something, with footage, with a story that I've never seen before.

“Otherwise, it's boring for me. But there needs to be enough trust that I keep back and don't go on set and tell them what they should be doing, or whatever - it's a really delicate balance.”

Collins has spent much of her time recently training emerging directors, many of whom have come from a DIY culture.

“When digital came in people could go out and shoot on their iPhones or whatever and training stopped, technical training stopped, because people could simply do it for themselves and they could go online and pick up information and that

“And that's fantastic, and lots of really good films are coming out of it. However, when those practitioners start to interface with the professional post houses, when they want a really good soundtrack, not what they can just drag off their own computer, when they want good visual effects, when they want a lovely grading job and a good finish on their film, then they tend to move into the professional post houses, but they haven't got the technical background to present their projects so that the post houses can actually work with them easily.”

This technical deficit can be the enemy of creativity, she says.

“A sound designer for instance is right at the end of the process, so they don't get much time and they don't get much budget left. That time can often be spent correcting problems and creativity goes out the window.”

She says she hesitated before accepting the invitation the Hall of Fame.

“I didn't reply right away and then I just thought yes, I'm a woman, I'm in the film industry, I'm in an area which doesn't often get recognised - directors get recognised, producers get recognised, actors get recognised, and I thought that that was important to have that sort of face.

"One of the really terrific things was knowing that Gordon Tovey is one of the one of the recipients and Gordon's long gone, but three years ago I co-edited Jan and Luit Bieringa’s documentary on Gordon called The HeART of the Matter. So, I feel like I am in company with a well-known friend and I'm just really delighted to be alongside Gordon.”