Career Insight - Carol Abbott - Vision MIxer

portrait of carol abbott Introduction
Carol's career began 'some time ago', back when it was possible to move from an adminstrative role and on to media production without too much difficulty. Things have certainly changed since then and having made the best of those opportunities to get in to production, Carol has forged a long-standing career in the gallery working on many high-profile programmes such as Miranda, Have I Got News For You, Black Adder, right through to 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, QI and The Grand Tour. In our interview Carol tells us about her work and extensive career.

How did your interest In visual media begin?
In terms of an interest in visual media, really I didn't start with that priority. I joined the BBC on a training programme many years ago and initially worked in radio drama as a Production Secretary, then moved across to television as a PA working on film/drama documentaries and light entertainment shows. I then applied for a Vision Mixing attachment and became a staff vision mixer for many years. This was not an uncommon progression for PA's at that time. I did love my time in radio, it's a more intimate medium than TV and in the drama department I was lucky enough to work with many famous actors of the day.

Moving to TV was also exciting and a little daunting but I was fortunate enough to have known Television Centre in its heyday when it was quite usual to find yourself sitting next to a Roman, a Dalek or a pop singer while having lunch...

Did you have a formal education in media?
I didn't have any formal education in media, it wasn't an option when I left school. I took my A levels and then joined the BBC on an annual recruitment training programme they used to offer and with them went to Kingsway College for six months to do various subjects but mainly to obtain a defined level of secretarial skills (not learnt at Grammar School!) and then I was assigned to work in a department within the Corporation and after a while went to Radio Drama where I stayed for three years before transferring to TV.

How did you get your career break?
The BBC used to offer attachments, i.e. opportunities to try different jobs and I applied for the Television PA one and eventually a Vision Mixing one. I also did a week's director's course; good experience.

What does a vision mixer do?
The job of a Vision Mixer has evolved greatly during my time. There are so many different angles to it depending on the type of programme you are mixing and on the equipment you are needing to operate and that equipment has also increased greatly in its variety and complexity. The top VMs often specialise in their fields. There are those who do Sport which is usually live and demands fast and flexible technical knowledge of video effects and superimpositions as well as the action on the field, those who do entertainment shows, which can also be live, similarly need technical skills but also the ability to cut music, chat, drama etc and there is also the whole world of the Classics - like the Proms, Opera and Ballet - which involves often working from scores and virtually 'learning' the pieces in question. Not to mention Event OB's which can have many cameras and are mostly live too so no second chances. I did The Marriage of Figaro opera live to cinemas about three years ago and now have even more respect for those VMs who do such productions regularly! The VMs who are hugely in demand will no doubt be those who can do a whole breadth of shows whilst also offering a strong technical knowledge of the vision mixing desk. I suppose to describe the job in one sentence though, a Vision Mixer does 'live editing of pictures'. The core role of the Vision Mixer is to use the vision mixing desk to cut or transition between each shot on a TV programme. Every time the shot changes on a live show (apart from within pre-edited VT packages) the vision mixer will have made that happen. For example, when the picture cuts from the presenter asking a question to the guest replying the vision mixer has cut from one camera to the other. Essentially it’s like live picture editing.

What are the qualities of a great vision mixer?
There are so many qualities that benefit a Vision Mixer but actually I still think the most important ones are how you get on with people, how flexible you can be, especially in your approach, how calm you can 'appear' and how much you can empathise with what the director is wanting because essentially you are working to the director. Nowadays the need for technical knowledge is important too however great you are to work with, it's not much help if you can't programme what's required for the show on the desk so those who are now entering and succeeding in the profession are usually pretty multi-skilled.

the QI team around the set. You work on a variety of TV programmes from Miranda, QI, Have I Got News For You, The Grand Tour and many more. Do you take a different approach to your work depending on the production?
Shows do require different approaches and the atmosphere in the gallery (control room) can vary depending on the team around you and the pressure of the show. You need to be sensitive to that, to pick up the programme vibe and to complement (yes -with an e) the team around you. Qi, for example, is usually a busy but friendly gallery. It probably helps that I've done it for a long time now but there is always room for humour. The Grand Tour is a show where they’re keen to capture the immediate and authentic responses from the audience to the stills used to illustrate their chat so there is no room for hesitation or error but providing you do the job efficiently, you will ‘survive’ and even have a laugh! You need to know when to knuckle down and just get on with it and when you can be a little more relaxed. There is always a time factor and if there is an audience for the show or the programme is live then the pressure increases so it's important to be able to concentrate and focus. It's also even more important to be able to move on from a mistake if you do make one and not make four more while you're analysing what you did wrong and wishing you hadn't done it! I've tried to remind myself I'm only human more times than I want to admit!

Describe a typical day for a vision mixer.
There isn't a typical day for a vision mixer. I've done an awards show for several years which, on this year's show day, involved being picked up at 0700 having marked up the script till late the night before, rehearsing solidly all day and finishing the two and a half hour live transmission at just after ten at night. I also did an OB recently where we were on site at 0630, covered a service live at Westminster Abbey. I had the easier of the two VM roles that day as I was just feeding the TV screens in the Abbey and by 1pm we were all standing in St. James' Park enjoying watching an RAF flypast.

"If a VM wants to be successful in the freelance world now they need to be au-fait with this fast developing technology. " What have been your favourite productions over the years?
Goodness, hard to choose my favourite productions as there have been many. From the point of view of 'grateful to have been part of it' just a few examples are doing 'Black Adder Goes Forth' especially the final 'Over the Top' episode, The funeral of Diana, being reduced to tears by being one of the first people to see that poignant wreath saying "Mummy", doing what I think was the last episode of 'Only Fools and Horses', doing a Bette Midler special (I love her...) and more recently doing The Railway Children from a theatre in York. From the 'it was great fun to do' point of view some of those are going to Los Angeles two years running to cover the UK feed of the Oscars - with Jonathan Ross and three other celebs doing live chat during all the US ads, spending a week in Tobago with great people doing a music show as part of the big Millennium night and an OB in Rome for the latest Pope's inauguration. There have been very many enjoyable shows and series with lovely production teams too, eg The Paul O'Grady Show and the previously mentioned QI.

Comedy seems to be a common theme amongst the many programmes you’ve worked on. Is there a reason for that?
I've probably done quite a lot of Comedy shows because experience is an advantage, especially with stand-up or situation comedy, particularly the latter. As a staff VM I gained experience with situation comedy which is no doubt an advantage in the freelance world. There is often a need for speed when rehearsing a sitcom as time is precious and so a pre-knowledge of what's required and involved has been helpful.

How is your work affected by the development of technology?
When I first started VM'ing there wasn't a great need for technical knowledge apart from a mastery of the quite fiddly old mixing controls. Then separate digital video effects equipment started to appear and we were taught basic moves at the BBC but we had DVE effects operators who would work on shows alongside the VM if the programme required more complicated effects, Top of the Pops for example. Now, of course, it's a whole world away from that and the vision mixer may be asked for complicated video effects as well as cutting and mixing the show. The mixing desks also vary in style and design so the demands are high and I believe if a VM wants to be successful in the freelance world now they need to be au-fait with this fast developing technology. The desks are designed to be used in optimal locations including internationally and in editing suites as well as TV control rooms so it is a competitive area for those companies.

the gallery What are the pros and cons of working for yourself?
I simply resigned from the BBC about twenty years ago to be a freelance vision mixer and I haven't regretted it although I did miss having a guaranteed pay slip every month, sick and holiday pay and would have loved the large BBC final salary pension that I bid goodbye to by leaving. On the other hand, I have enjoyed the independence of being freelance. I am not being told what I am working on, I make that decision. I feel there has been more respect for the role itself in the freelance world and even though the hours you work as a freelancer can definitely be long and unsociable it helps that it is your own fault for saying yes! There is always the risk of illness or disability of course which as a freelancer equates to no income so insurance for that is wise and not something a staff member has to think about but overall it was a good move for me.

What are the highs and lows of the job?
The highs of the job are the sense of satisfaction you can have if a show goes well because you are so hands -on. If you do your job well you can almost enhance an artist's performance perhaps by just holding that look to camera a little longer at the end of an emotional song or catching a glance from someone in an interview. A busy scripted show can be challenging but very satisfying if you get it right and it is good to have been part of the team on a well-respected and successful production too.

The lows are the acute sense of failure if you get something wrong especially on a live show and like with many jobs no doubt, sometimes there can be a sense of isolation as those around you may not fully appreciate what you are having to do. The hours can be demanding - but then that's just called working in the entertainment Industry!

What was the best business advice you were ever given?
I've never been given or asked for business advice apart from speaking to my accountant but I think the best general advice I have is that if there are two equally eligible people being considered they'll probably go with one who's nicest to work with.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting a career in the media?
I would say that if you are hoping for a career in the media nowadays you need to be prepared to work very long and unsociable hours for not much remuneration, be flexible because demands and times will change at the last minute and be enthusiastic and willing to learn. The runner who remembers who has which coffee and who has which tea and learns when to ask people and then when to bring it will probably be ordering it themselves in a couple of years. I'd also say try to find out what other people's roles involve. A good producer/director will have an appreciation of what the team around them are having to do and they will be respected for it. A loud director is not necessarily a good one.

All images © Carol Abbott or their respective copyright owners and used with permission
Article Date - July 2018
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