POST-PRODUCTION SOUND MIXER - GRAHAM WILD
Graham is a freelance dubbing mixer, who has worked in the industry for over 25 years for the BBC, and post-production house, Films at 59. Graham now works with lots of different independent companies.
He has worked on a lot of the big Natural History shows such as ‘Planet Earth’, ‘Blue Planet’, ‘Frozen Planet’, as well as ‘Life Africa’, and ‘The Hunt’. His drama work includes ‘Teachers’, ‘Mistresses’, ‘Five Daughters’, and the new crime drama, ‘Tennison’, the prequel to the Helen Mirren show, ‘Prime Suspect’.
HOW DID YOU GET IN TO THE INDUSTRY, AND DID YOU GO TO FILM SCHOOL?
When I was 11 or 12, I liked school plays and amateur dramatics. I wasn’t in to the acting stuff but rather the stage set-up and all the behind the scenes stuff. As I got older, there was someone a few years above me who did sound and lighting and I used to watch them work. Growing up I had reel-to-reel and tape recorders and I used to make little gadgets by soldering wires in kit and machines and I was quite in to the whole technical side. So when the school plays got more involved and needed sound effects and music, I got in to that. The guy who did it wasn’t really in to it that much so it was an easy opening for me. When I was 15, the guy who did it before me went off and became a sound recordist at the BBC and that planted something in the back of my mind. I expanded on the set up at school and got in to it as each play went on, music, sound effects etc and I ended up having a big mixing desk and kit. A couple of other amateur dramatic groups came along and had heard I did the sound effects and asked if I could help them. At one point I was doing sound for seven amateur dramatics groups! I ended up with a large collection of kit too. I was doing a show at school one night and a parent of one of the kids on the school saw a show and said I should come and see what he did at Granada. So I went to look around Granada and sat in his live studio. Then I thought this is what I want to do! I asked him what I needed to do to get a job in this area. He said I should get a job at the BBC and for three years they’ll train you and then you can come and work for ITV and we’ll pay you a bit more! So, that’s what I did! I was just doing my O-Levels at the time and so I then chose my A-levels to suit this area; Physics, Maths and Music. At the end I applied for the BBC and they weren’t taking anybody on that year, so I timed it badly. I was a bit gutted, and I asked them given my experience what was the best thing to do and they replied to get a bit more technical knowledge. At the time there was only two industry courses available: one at Tonmeister and the other at Ravensbourne. My grades weren’t good enough for Tonmeister so I went to the University at Lancaster and did an electronics course. I did it for a year and found it quite dull to be honest. I kept applying for jobs at the BBC that whole time though. About half way through the year, the BBC said they were employing again in September and to come and have a look round. I applied and got a job here in Bristol. I got a really good contact here in Bristol too as my step-aunt was a Production Manager in the Natural History department and they said come down and spend a weeks work experience here. And it went from there ...
WHAT ONE SKILL OR PERSONAL ATTRIBUTE WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE BIGGEST FACTOR AS TO WHY YOU GOT TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
I think the film making process gets a little bit more intense as it goes along. It’ll start with an idea and more and more people get involved through the shooting and as you approach the dubbing stage where I am, deadlines are approaching and tensions are high. So to do the job I do you need to be quite calm under pressure and I’m quite good at shedding stress and not letting it affect me and the work. So, for me, being able to cope under pressure is a really good attribute. I see my job as a very creative one. People sometimes see it as very technical with all the software, plug-ins, gadgets and hardware but it’s not for me. I always made time to learn the tools and then put that away to concentrate on the creative and people side of the job. For me then, it’s your personal skills. Its always a collaboration, and how you get on with people.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A CV/EMAIL FROM STUDENTS TRYING TO BREAK IN TO THE BUSINESS?
Definitely someone who has spent time and effort getting experience in their field. Not necessarily paid experience but someone who maybe over their holidays has spent time with a production team, on set, on location, has phoned up people and got work experience running for a production company. They’ve shown an interest over a period of time as an assistant or whatever.
WHAT MISTAKES DO YOU SEE STUDENTS MAKING THAT ARE COMING UP IN YOUR FIELD? EITHER IN COMMUNICATIONS OR IN THEIR WORK.
COMMUNICATIONS – Confidence is a difficult thing but you have to judge what’s going around you. I’ve had people with me on work experience a lot and the best people are those that sit quietly and like to watch and listen to what’s going on. We’ve had students in before, when I’ve had a room full of executives from the TV company, as well as the producers and directors, and the work experience person feels that’s the time to pipe up and say “I don’t think that particular shot works” and says something very inappropriate
IN SHORT FILMS – I used to do a lot of student films for the local university. We used to give them a day to mix their films and by 6pm you’d be only two minutes in to their seven minute film. They’ll be so focused on how they want it to be and they get lost in the details, and they can’t see the bigger picture. The more experience you get gives you the confidence to say, the first viewing audience won’t notice that, or that needs time to be finessed and you have to tread that line, but students tend to get so drawn in on the tiny things that don’t matter. The minute details don’t matter as much as you think. Sometimes projects have 30 tracks layed up at the the start of a film and by the end they’re down to five as so much focus has been spent at the start they’ve ran out of time when they get to the end and there isn’t the time or focus for the end of the piece. The first minutes are important but if you’ve forgotten about the end, then that’s not good.
WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE AND OUTLOOK ON THE CURRENT STATE OF THE INDUSTRY? ALSO, HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED FROM WHEN YOU BEGAN AND HOW HAS THIS IMPACTED ON YOUR WORK?
When I started it wasn’t as technical and the equipment was really really expensive too. Mixing desks were £360,000 a piece. The first digital workstation was £500,000 and so you had a room with a million pounds worth of kit. The hire rate of that theatre is exactly the same as what it was then, but the kit cost has come down. People’s wages have gone up, so the allocation has changed. The cost of making a film is now more balanced between the creative person behind the film and the equipment. Its very tempting to have flashy kit but a lot of what we do is focusing time on the project, not the kit. For me, over the past years, I’ve been doing a lot of what I do at a home studio. I prefer to do it in an environment where I can focus better. The relationship with the production team is key. It’s more important to go to a meeting early on and get to know the production team, and their ideas and thoughts about the film, than it is to spend that extra hour mixing. You’re there to realise the ideas of the production team whether that is the director, the writer or producer. The better communication you have the better it is for the film as a whole. I used to be at the end of process but now I like to be involved even before the track-lay and music has begun so I can give notes and talk to them to give my thoughts. Getting involved earlier has changed things lot.
ON SET/IN YOUR WORKING ENVIRONMENT:
CAN YOU OFFER ANY ON SET/PRACTICAL HINTS AND TIPS?
I’m very keen on getting an overview before I start. My part in the process involves working with the track-lay, recording Foley, then premixing, final mixing and deliverables (playing out all the parts to be delivered). It’s important to watch the whole thing all the way through before you start doing any work because you don’t know what you have to do until you’ve seen it all. You might spend lots of time track-laying at the start of the show and then find out the final part of the film is a drama reconstruction that you have to spend a lot of time on and you’ve spent too much time at the start with the tiny things. Have a meeting with the production and get their thoughts; maybe they see a sequence as being all music and you might have track-layed lots of sound effects. It’s always good to have options at the final mix but you have to be efficient with your time. For Foley, allocate your time accordingly; do things in layers. If you have eight hours to do a project, at around four hours if it’s fairly balanced show you should be half way through. If not you need to think about speeding up, it’s that simple really. I take notes all the time for things to do later, if you have time to revisit them. It’s no good track-laying for ages and then having no time for the final mix as you’ve run out of time and you might end up having to pay for that extra work yourself. So give yourself a plan of attack of how you are going to break down the work. And stick to it.
This is the order of which I like to work: the dialogue is the anchor element to any show. It’s worth spending more time on that than any effects work as any jarring edits that cause dialogue to be unclear means that you’re going to lose people when it’s viewed, so that’s your first call. I spend most of the time on dialogue, getting the levels and EQ right. Then the music. People have an idea of where they want to put that. Next is the effects. When you start adding effects it’s often up against the dialogue. Even once you’ve added your effects you might need to revisit your dialogue and adjust them a little more to brighten them up. You’re constantly adjusting.
WHEN YOU ARE FIRST BROUGHT ON TO A PROJECT, WHAT ARE YOUR IMMEDIATE THOUGHTS AND PROCESSES?
I like to see and understand the bigger picture, the aims, and where they are headed. I worked on a story a few years ago, a very dark but fresh story about some people that had been murdered and the mothers of the girls that had been killed had asked that the programme be made, so we had a very difficult line to tread. It had to be sensitive and not over dramatic,whilst still portraying the drama. and so we had to be really careful that we didn’t take it in a different direction to what they intended. If the project I’m working on is based on a book, I’ll read the book, if it’s based on a screenplay I’ll read that. I like to know the bigger picture.
ADVICE AND MISTAKES:
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
When I used to work on 16mm film you had to lace up all the magazine bays in the suites. The mixer I assisted always said “More haste, less speed”.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE?
When track-laying and mixing sound, you’re doing it for the film as a whole, not for each shot. An easy mistake to get in to is to just to look at the pictures. You’re not track-laying pictures, you’re tracking the story. Each picture follows on from the previous one and leads on to the next one and that’s what is important. Sound is about the flow. The emotions and the journey, it’s not about having a big surround sound moment that will draw attention to itself and distract you from an important dialogue line. It’s not the job of the sound to make itself noticed. Keep the story in mind to enhance what the people are feeling and concentrate on the story.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE BLUNDER?
A colleague was in the adjacent theatre to mine mixing a film about wife swapping. The two review theatres that shared a machine room where we copied and played back tapes. I had a room full of executives for our natural history documentary show in one room and my friend was next door with his wife swapping film. We had our show about sparrows or whatever it was and I said to the executives “I’ll just go and put in the final film version for you”, and then went into the machine room and ejected the tape that was in the machine. In those days, as you ejected the tape it would output the signal that was coming into the system and as the machine room was wired up to do tape copies, it outputted what was running though the system at that time. It just happened to output it to my screening room temporarily. So all my executives were treated to some saucy images from the wife swapping film instead of squirrels! When I came back in they all asked what it was they had just seen and it took me a while to catch up and work out what they meant, plus a lot of explaining!
Another story, when I first started working I was a dubbing assistant for a lovely guy called Stuart Greig , who was an inspiration to me. We were recording a voice over for a show and Stuart said to me “Go and sit in the voice over booth, put the headphones on and test the microphones”. I had a copy of the script and Stuart said, “Read it like David Attenborough”, as we had David coming in to do the voice over. So I’m reading the script and Stuart said, “That’s fine, but that’s not how he speaks, do it like David would!” So, he coerced me into doing my best David Attenbourgh impression and as I looked up, who did I see standing there but Sir David Attenborough!Embarrassing!