Michael Dixon - Editor Interview

Michael Dixon is a seasoned veteran of film and television post-production editing, starting out in the industry in the early 1980's. From 1983 to 1984, Michael contributed his skills as Editor for Series-1 of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, including the pilot episode. We're very grateful to Michael for providing us with valuable insight about one crucial aspect of the show's production that is rarely explored. 
Correspondence with James Gratton, May-June, 2011 
 

Would you be able to share how you fist became involved with the "Thomas" pilot and series? Did you also do some earlier work for Clearwater and David Mitton?
I met Clearwater editor Marvin Garrett (now sadly deceased) at a party, sometime in 1980/81. He was going on holiday and was looking for someone to cover him at Clearwater whilst he was away. I went to Clearwater as a commercials editor, initially for 3 weeks. My first 'job' was a Cadbury's chocolate film directed by Dave Mitton, it was nearly finished but they had a problem with a shot that went out of focus, they were stumped, I solved that problem and from then on was Dave Mitton's commercials editor.
 
Clearwater was a lively and, mostly, fun place to work. Mitton was flamboyant, flash and charming. He was the producer half of a very successful partnership with Ken Turner, making high quality award winning commercials - mostly animated and very clever films. I was taken on permanently and brought Andrea MacArthur to be my assistant/business partner. We got our own cutting room, refurbished it - Andrea had to have everything just right - and equipped it with the most expensive music system we could find and one of the first computers, an Apple 2e, to be used anywhere in film post production.
 
Being Mitton's exclusive commercials editing team when he landed Thomas we were the 1st choice edit team.

The pilot - "Down the Mine", would you recall any marked differences between this version and the Series-1 episode that was later re-filmed?
As I remember it the pilot was less rich than Series 1. The sets were much simpler and there was not the variety of characters. I seem to remember too that the lighting was a lot flatter.

Do you recall what happened to the 'pilot' master tape or film, who it was left with, or where it might be found today? Would you by chance retained any artifacts (stills) from the pilot?
I have no idea what happened to the pilot. I have no stills.

Given that the episodes were 4.5 minutes long (5.5 if you include the 30 sec intro and end-credits), would you be able to estimate how many minutes of footage you went through during editing in order to come up with the final episode?
The whole of Series 1 was shot in scene order, like shooting a feature film. So for the 26 episodes all the sequences featuring a particular set were shot at the same time. We received rushes daily, checked and logged them. I purchased an Apple 2e computer with 48Kb (yes Kb!) RAM and 2 floppy disk drives taking 64Kb floppies - this cost over 2000. We logged the scenes using a simple database programme so that we could keep track of how the episodes were building up. Looking back this system was a direct pre-cursor to the Avid and Final Cut Pro Non-linear editing applications used throughout the industry since the early 90's.
 
I still have the computer and discs and one day will get them out of storage and put them in a museum. So, I could tell you the exact amount of footage shot but won't have access to the figures for the foreseeable future. I would guess though that it wasn't much more than a 3-1 ratio.
 
So, we continued to edit commercials until we had enough footage to start putting episodes of Thomas together.

During editing, were you presented with the same scene filmed from different altenate angles or POV?
Yes. As I said earlier it was shot pretty much like a live action feature film. Most of the energy and pace of the films would have been achieved through editing - and that requires a good choice of material.

Was unused footage for one episode recycled or reused for others or later used in music videos for the series?
There would have been some recycling - mostly cutaways and travelling shots, and we were always looking for more options for the Fat Controller. But I would say most of the episodes were well covered in the studio.
 
I have no idea what was used in music videos - I have never seen any.

Would you be able to shed any light as whether the original un-edited filmed sequences were catalogued and archived?
Everything would have been catalogued at the beginning. I don't know about archiving.

During editing, did you work closely with David Mitton and Britt to review and put together the scenes for the final cut of the episodes?
We worked on Thomas for eighteen months, I would say that during that time David Mitton visited the edit suite no more than 6 times. He trusted me to make his films - that's why I was his editor. Britt Allcroft spent a lot of time with us, especially towards the end of episodes - she pretty much just oversaw what we did, Andrea and I put the films together. The studio shoots were very efficient.

Would you be able to describe your work and the process you followed for a typical episode - from the time the raw footage was handed to you to the final cut?
I have described the early stages above. When we had enough footage for an episode we would sort our database into Episode/Scene order, record a guide Voice - I think this would probably have been Andrea's voice  - and then we'd assemble the episodes. It was very easy stuff really. Later we worked quite closely with Mike and Junior on the music, and the episodes started to come to life. Andrea and I spent 3 days at the Tallyllyn (not sure on spelling) Railway in Wales where we recorded all the sound effects. Like a lot of people, including Ringo I believe, I was surprised at how incredibly successful Thomas became. I think a lot of this must be down to the dedication and commitment of everyone involved in the production. These were high quality 35mm films, the model making and photography perfect. And the sound effects, music and post production were done with the attention to detail and quality that we were accustomed to using in advertising.
 
When all the episodes were complete we had them transferred to VHS tape, bought ourselves a VHS player and spent three weeks with Britt, Mike and Ringo at the studio in Ringo's house recording the narration.
 
We then laid tracks and Mixed the sound for all the episodes at a dubbing theatre in Soho.
 
We graded from the original neg and finished the films on video. An animated title sequence was planned but didn't turn up so I designed the title sequence - with the engine going under the bridge etc. - in then online edit suite.

Were you privy to what the planned animated title was supposed to be like?
I recall seeing some simple draft ideas - titles in smoke puffs etc. I don't think they ever progressed very far - we were not involved with them.
 
From what you say, would  the Pilot have had had a different visual and musical opening sequence?
It would not have had the same opening sequence as that, as I said, was not designed until we were in then Online edit. I don't think the pilot had a title sequence. Can't remember it if there was.

Was Ringo's home studio setup impressive?
Yes, well it was a studio with a big mixing desk!  It was in the house he bought from John Lennon - the one featured in the film for the single 'Imagine'. Going there was one of the highlights of the production, although Ringo just came for the recording sessions and then disappeared.

A fandom mystery: During filming, a 'faceless' non-character Marklin engine was used for off-camera background shunting duty. Fans have deduced that it can be seen in night scenes in "The Flying Kipper" and "Off the Rails".    Do you recall ever seeing this engine? 
I seem to remember that engine - but have no recollection of where and when. Was not aware of any mystery.
 
Re:  episode "night" scenes - were they filmed in brighter lighting conditions and  later "darkened" during post-production editing?
They were all lit and filmed as night.

Can you tell us a bit about your post-Thomas/Clearwater work and any current projects that you are working on?
After Thomas I left Clearwater - and, as it happens, all entertainment and advertising film work. I had been working in the industry for less than five years and had edited over 100 commercials, an independent feature film, Thomas, a number of corporate films and a couple of documentaries.
 
In 1984 I joined a delegation of film makers on a trip to the Soviet Union. On this trip I met a number of independent film makers and this led to my working in current affairs and documentaries. I also met my current partner on that trip. She had made a six part series for the newly formed Channel 4 TV.
 
Between 1990 and 1995 we made 5 documentaries on the Gulf War, won the United Nations Media Award and were the first film makers to expose Gulf War Syndrome. We have a daughter, Xanna, who herself has just started making films.
 
I continue to work in broadcast TV, mostly on documentaries and current affairs. I have made a number of independent documentary features. My current project is a film on Fox-Hunting - www.aminoritypastime.net This week we recorded a narration with Patrick Stewart for a forthcoming re-edit of that film that we plan to promote through independent cinema and the festival circuit. Two weeks ago I received an award from One World Media for a film made in the Unreported World series. I am currently editing a programme for Channel 4's Dispatches strand.

Many of the College/University-age fans of the show are contemplating or are enrolled in TV/Film production courses. Given your years of experience as an editor, would you have any advice or words of wisdom to impart to those wishing to follow a similar path?
Yes, be clear about what it is that you want to do/be. And just do/be that - at every opportunity you can. Become experienced/qualified at the highest level in your craft. Don't compromise, yourself or your product.
 

SiF would like to extend out congratulations to Michael upon winning the award and recognition from One World Media for his work. We wish Michael all the best success with his current and upcoming projects. :)