‘I literally walked straight into Arnold Schwarzenegger’: The Chinnor boy now working on America’s Got Talent

Jon Oliver
Jon Oliver
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We caught up with former Lord Williams’s School pupil Jon Oliver who now lives and works in Hollywood.

When did you start to get into editing? Was it something you developed a love for as a child or did you discover it much later?

I started to get into editing after I left Sussex University. I got a job at a corporate hospitality and event management company. Initially, I was doing fairly boring IT work, but as multimedia on websites and CD-ROMs took off, I was starting to move more into graphic design, multimedia authoring, and eventually video work, editing footage from previous events. I was working on a very rudimentary system, but picked up the basics and became interested enough to pursue video editing further.

In 1996, I got a 3 month internship at MTV in London. I was responsible for getting footage into the system and generally assisting the editor on a project covering interesting stories from around Europe. The first 6 weeks were unpaid, for the remaining 6 weeks I was paid £50 per week – a pittance for someone who’s just moved to London. The editor taught me a lot though, and from there I took on various edit assistant and junior editor jobs before becoming a freelance editor in January 2000.

Obviously with some of the programmes you’ve been involved with, I’m thinking of Big Brother, I’m a Celeb, there is probably a lot of discussion about what to edit out. Are you involved in any of that discussion or do you just do as you’re told?

With programmes like I’m a Celebrity and Big Brother, there is obviously a huge amount of footage to work with, so it’s always a collaboration. Before anything even reaches the edit suite, a number of producers will track potential stories as they progress throughout the day. I will then be handed a printed paper log, with material pertinent to the story highlighted. This generally comprises the spine of the story, though I will add my own elements as I find them (a disparaging look, a flirty smile) to accentuate arguments or potential romances.

After finishing a cut of a story, it will then go through the viewing or screening process. The senior, and then executive producers will look at the cut of the story and suggest changes, which I then implement. This can generate some lively discussion if there is a difference of opinion. Finally, the network will view and offer further changes. Creative notes can sometimes be challenged or argued against, but legal ones cannot (if a contributor says something libelous for example, it must be cut out). On the whole, I am given free reign to cut a story as I see fit, provided it sits well with the executive producer’s original remit, and on the proviso that my cut will be subject to their changes.

You’ve spent quite a few years on America’s Got Talent. What aspects of that show do you particularly enjoy?

AGT is a huge production with huge viewing figures, and has a suitably large budget. This means that the field crew can generate some amazing footage for me to play with, using jibs, drones and high speed cameras for silky smooth slo-mo playback. The edit team is given creative freedom when putting contestants’ intro packages together, which makes them really fun to cut. Also, with a variety of different kinds of acts (singers, musicians, comedians, sword swallowers etc), every day is different.

What is the Hollywood lifestyle like?

Much like the London lifestyle I suppose, but with considerably better weather. The cliché of Hollywood being full of wannabe actors, diet-obsessed yoga fanatics and aging has-beens propped up by plastic surgery is true to a certain extent, but there are also a lot of clever, funny and interesting people here too. Hollywood is a very creative town, which means there are some very cool, quirky bars and restaurants to explore.

Pop into any Starbucks, and you’re bound to see someone working on their script too. In my opinion, one of the best things about living in Hollywood is what it’s near to. Within an hour or so’s drive, you can be at the beach, in the desert or in the mountains. You can literally snowboard in the morning, and surf in the afternoon, if you have the inclination and/or the skills (lamentably, I have the former but not the latter).

Are there any famous people you’ve met through your work?

One of the other things about living in Hollywood – you get used to seeing a lot of celebrities out and about. At our favourite local restaurant, my girlfriend and I have seen Colin Farrell, Katy Perry, Mel Gibson and Piers Brosnan to name but a few.

One night, I literally walked straight into Arnold Schwarzenegger at a club. He was very gracious about it. And, of course, I work for Simon Cowell.

Your ambitions going forward - any programmes you would like to work on?

I would love to work on something like Planet Earth II. In fact, any natural history programme with David Attenborough would fulfil a lifelong dream. Editing a feature film or something like Game of Thrones is also on my bucket list, along with hard-hitting documentaries like Making a Murderer or Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.