Creative Lives — Sarah Blythe talks riding the adrenaline fuelled rollercoaster of editing live television
Ever wondered who’s behind the scenes for live television, cutting and combining the visuals? Well, one of those hidden pros is vision mixer Sarah Blythe, who first discovered her craft while shadowing colleagues on the set of Big Brother. Following a course at the National Film and Television School, the doors were opened to a world of expansive mixing desks dotted in rainbow-coloured buttons, and a never-ending banks of screens, as she took up work at Sky News and Sky Sport. In this interview, Sarah walks us through the pros and cons of her position, including the long hours and erratic schedule, as well as the meaningful opportunities she’s had – including contributing to the coverage of events such as the Hillsborough verdict, Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena terrorist attack.
London and occasionally Birmingham
BA English Literature and Film Studies, University of Exeter (2006–2009)
Broadcast Production, National Film and Television School (2014)
Runnerand Logger, Big Brother, Googlebox and more (2011–2014)
Freelance Transcriber (2014)
How would you describe what you do?
I work as a vision mixer, which is the role in a studio gallery that involves live switching (or ‘cutting’) between different sources – it’s basically live editing. Usually, I take orders from a director, but there are a lot of joint director/vision mixer roles these days too. I also have to build effects such as two-way boxes, colour correction and cropping – sometimes live on air. Pretty much all live television is vision mixed, including the news, sport and live events, but there are some pre-recorded studio shows that are also vision-mixed before they are polished in the edit.
What does a typical working day look like?
I mainly work in news and sports, and the vision-mixing is done in shifts. Working for Sky News and Sky Sports News can be any time of day. Sometimes I start at 4.30am, 11am, 6pm or do night shifts if I'm vision mixing a sport event from Australia or Asia. Most of the day is spent sitting in front of the vision-mixing desk. When I'm not vision-mixing, I'm either taking a break or prepping for the next session by looking through what's planned for the next few hours of television.
What do you like about working in London?
I love living and working in London, mainly because I live an off-peak lifestyle due to my job. I don't commute regular hours and I get lots of daytimes free and lie-ins! However, the downside is that I work most weekends, especially in sport, which isn't good for a healthy social life. I have found decent rent prices in London after a bit of scouting and the job pays well, so that helps. Working in television in London is exciting as you're in the centre of the industry. Seeing celebrities is a bonus too!
Inside the Sky News gallery
How does your freelance work usually come about?
I gained a lot of my work through a placement at Sky, which came through my studies at the National Film and Television School. Otherwise, I’m contacted through LinkedIn or the Vision Mixers Guild.
How collaborative is your work?
Vision mixing is very collaborative. I work as part of a gallery team, usually alongside a director, a PA or DA [director’s assistant] and a producer. Live television is an elaborate dance and you all have to perform your roles so it looks good on the telly. As a vision mixer, I have to listen to everything the director tells me to do, while also assisting them by looking out for potential errors and concentrating on getting on with the vision mixing if they are busy. Listening to the counts from the DA is important too, so that I know how long we have before I have to cut to the next item or go to a commercial break.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Creating something successfully in real-time and then being able to go home afterwards knowing the job is done is definitely the most enjoyable part. I love the adrenaline of live television and the rollercoaster of emotions and nerves that come with it.
Mistakes will always be made eventually, and dealing with that is one of the challenges of the job too. Knowing how to move on straight away, without letting it get to you, is very important. I also enjoy the variety of channels and work, and not having a solid routine. It's nice to live each day as it comes, rather than for the weekend.
“Live television is an elaborate dance and you all have to perform your roles so it looks good on the telly.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Some days I walk into work for a shift at Sky News and it’ll be an important day for coverage, so I have to rise to the challenge. Recently this has included Remembrance Day, the Hillsborough verdict, Grenfell Tower and I was also on shift the night of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. I can't say that any of these projects have been ‘exciting’, due to the subject matter, but I did have to prove myself as a vision mixer, being able to switch between different incoming clips of breaking news and watching out for live press conferences coming up etc., and that’s fulfilling.
What skills are essential to your job?
Concentrating for long periods, quick reaction speeds, taking initiative, technical know-how for building effects and understanding the logic of vision-mixing and being able to have a good rapport with the director.
Are you currently working on any side projects?
It's hard to initiate anything without a vision-mixing desk, but I have done some side work for Google for their internal conferences and events, and in the past, also worked on light entertainment, for events such as Radio 1's Big Weekend Festival.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use a Grass Valley Kayenne vision mixing desk for most of my work, but also use Sony and SAM desks too.
Sarah at work
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
When I was very young I wanted to be a teacher, but since secondary school, I knew I wanted a career in television.
What influence has your background had on your choice of career?
I was accepted into a private secondary school in Birmingham on financial assistance and was very lucky to have exposure to all of BBC Birmingham's old camera and editing equipment as part of a video technology class we had every Friday. I loved it and spent most of my spare time during breaks, lunchtime and after school editing bits and pieces about my classmates.
I find that most people in television are well-off or middle class, due to being able to afford living in London without pay while doing work experience (and also because of a fair bit of nepotism), but I've come from a lower-middle class background in the Midlands and definitely managed to work my way into the industry with persistence.
How is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
To be honest, my university degree in English literature has been pretty useless. Before university, I was told that it was only possible to do a television or media degree with low entry grades and that I should do something more ‘worthwhile’, but in the end, all that seemed to matter was the work experience in TV, not what you studied.
However, there is an excellent course at York University with high entry requirements and I endlessly bump into people in the industry who graduated from that course. Since then, I completed a post-graduate diploma at the National Film and Television School, which was absolutely instrumental in getting me into Sky as a vision mixer.
A vision-mixing desk
What were your first jobs?
My first jobs were mainly runner jobs on Big Brother and Big Brother's Bit on the Side, which I loved as it used to be my favourite programme as a teenager! Then I got into transcription on entertainment shows until I discovered vision mixing. I shadowed several vision mixers while I was a runner. The course at the National Film and Television School gave me an internship at Sky for six weeks, who I then started working for.
Was there a particular person that helped your development at the start of your career?
There were a couple of vision mixers and directors in particular that let me shadow them – despite them also being freelance. They taught me a lot and let me see vision-mixing in many different environments. I'm so grateful for all of those experiences, even when I was just a runner.
“It’s impossible to learn without actually doing the job on air. Getting someone to trust you with no experience is equally impossible.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Vision mixing is a unique skill. Through my course and working on hours upon hours of live television, I've learnt how to adapt to constantly changing situations and how to control nerves and adrenaline.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge was getting into vision mixing itself. It's impossible to learn without actually doing the job on air, and getting someone to trust you with no previous experience is equally impossible. Since doing the job, my biggest challenge has been learning to concentrate for such long periods and getting along with every type of director on a professional level. It's vital for creating a clean show.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I originally imagined myself in light entertainment, but somehow, at least for the moment, I've ended up in news, which is something I never expected. I barely ever watched the news growing up, but now I find myself watching it eight hours a day and love walking into work, not knowing what the day ahead will bring.
Sarah working at BBC Birmingham
What would you like to do next?
I'm currently working at BBC Birmingham as a director/vision mixer. That has created new challenges too, adapting to the director side of the role. My ultimate goal is to work on more light entertainment shows and music festivals.
Could you do this job forever?
Unfortunately, especially in news and sport, vision mixing is increasingly becoming automated. I'm not sure what the future will be in light entertainment, but vision mixing is being pushed into either a joint director/vision mixer role or being replaced by software. Perhaps I won't be able to do this forever, but I will chase it around the world until it goes! It's quite a stressful job, and so, travel breaks are important, which I'm lucky to be able to do as a freelancer.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Usually, the natural career progression is from vision mixer to director, but it depends on your interests in vision mixing – whether you prefer the technical side or want to be in charge!
“It's quite a stressful job, so travel breaks are important, which I'm able to do as a freelancer.”
Sarah on the set of Sky News
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a vision mixer?
For anyone looking to go into vision mixing, I highly suggest taking the Broadcast Production course at the National Film and Television School. It's a one-year course and teaches you all sorts of light entertainment vision-mixing through simulations using actors, a director, camera operators and more. Unfortunately, there aren't many other ways in, unless you have contacts or can get into shopping television or corporate work first.