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Shorts in the Spotlight

Some work I did last year got some recent attention. Operator, directed by Caroline Bartleet, won best British short at the Baftas this February. This was quite a nice surprise as I’d completely forgotten I’d worked on it; Alex Joseph and I recorded all the Foley at the end of a session for another film. Hats off too to the film’s sound designer Lisa-Marie McStay who picked up the award for best sound design at London’s Underwire festival.

Another pleasant surprise was The Drum magazine’s pick for their ad of the week back in October. Film is Fragile was a collaboration between The Mill and BFI to promote the restoration and digitisation of the UK’s historic film collection.

Once again, Alex asked me to look after the footsteps in the film. We were both volunteering our time on this and I soon realised it consisted of clips of characters running in classic films. It didn’t take too long  to complete in the end; I’ve gotten pretty used to grabbing old recordings. In fact I’ve managed to create a library in my brain that can go straight to the appropriate reel in a film edited 5 years ago; picking the right shoes, surface and pace. Well, that’s the intention anyway, results can be mixed.

So is this still Foley? No, not really… not if considering the definition of recording bespoke sound effects for linear picture. However that in itself can be contested; the line between sound effects and classic Foley is frequently blurred, especially when taking game sound into consideration. Nonetheless, nicking old recordings and cutting them to picture is pretty common with low/no budget shorts and worked well in this case. Many Foley editors will also supplement recordings with old favourites. These supplements may be used to add weight to tracks or sell the texture of a surface.

In the case of this film, the copied footsteps were quite simple. The snow feet and the wet beach feet were both layered up, however the rest (all of which were concrete) sat there quite nicely on their own.

So two quickly made Foley soundtracks that caught a bit of attention; if only the long-slog projects did the same!

Sounds Like Wimbledon

This week is brilliant! I’m in an irritatingly good mood.

Copyright owned by AELTC Ltd.


Last November I received an email from Ben Swann, Learning Officer at The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (AELTC). I read Ben’s email, re-read it, did a little dance and looked at it a few more times before responding.

For those that didn’t grow up in a family obsessed with the annual events going on in London’s SW19 postcode at this particular time of year, the AELTC is the organisation that looks after the assets and operations of the Wimbledon Championships. Ben’s Learning programmes operates within Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and alongside the Wimbledon Foundation – the charitable arm of the club who offer grants and activities to improve the social needs of local communities and encourage young people of all backgrounds into the sport of tennis.

Since 2011, the Learning Department have conducted a Community Arts Project, commissioning creative professionals to work with local young people on a project related to the Championships. This year, Ben took inspiration from the behind-the-scenes videos of Foley artists finding unexpected creative solutions in the studio on films. His idea was to work with some visually impaired young people in recreating the sounds of a tennis match played at Wimbledon, using creative objects instead of a ball and racquet.

I scuttled over to the club one chilly afternoon before Christmas – wearing the only pair of shoes I own that aren’t sporting some gaffer tape residue or telling scuffs – with a degree of nervousness in my step. All elements of salesmanship flew out the window when I met Ben and he offered to show me Centre Court. That was it, from that moment on I spent the forthcoming months doing a terrible job of disguising my fandom and sheer delight in working on what has become my favourite project so far. By the end of the day’s meeting we were contemplating whoopie cushions, rubber chickens and champagne corks. The more down-to-business elements of our meeting resulted in the idea to record a group of young people from the Wandsworth Vision Support Service performing tennis sounds within the grounds, recording a number of crowd tracks on centre court and use these recordings to compile a soundscape. A selection of sounds from this would be compiled as ‘one-shots’ – short and distinct sound selections from the recordings – that were instantly recognisable as a Wimbledon or tennis motif. These would be broadcast to those in the ticket queue on match day.

One of 8 motifs used on the bridge

One of 8 motifs used on the bridge

Now I can squeeze, rattle and hit a number of objects no problem but we needed a recordist. I was also keen to have help and a second pair of ears with the soundscape and mix. My friend Rick Blything had begun freelancing at the same time as me and is a true field recording aficionado. Thankfully he was similarly keen to work on and bring his own ideas to the project. Between the three of us, we had a solid plan; through the use of field and ‘studio’ recordings, we’d create the experience of a day at Wimbledon during the Championships. Starting with the dawn chorus on Henman Hill, then lawn mowing and lines marking activity of the groundskeepers, the arrival and milling about of the crowds, seating of spectators and of course, the match itself.  

The plans were in place, Rick was keen to make the most of the opportunities afforded to record on-site. The early morning recording of Henman Hill was both enjoyable and bonkers. I had to get a night bus to get there in time; this was the least pleasant moment of the project. On the plus side, we captured the true essence of Wimbledon waking up on a spring morning. The awakening of birds, the first District Line trains clattering away in the distance, Heathrow gearing up for another day of international travel and Ben coming up onto the Broadcast Centre roof armed with two welcome cups of tea. We later returned to record the grounds staff and mechanics. Rick, armed with his array of Sound Devices recorders and microphones (absent minded Foley artist has forgotten the names of said microphones held within their furry blimps), captured their lawnmowers, squeaky line markers, blade sharpeners, engines and the fellows themselves. Groundskeeper Will inspired the opening to our soundscape – we wanted a little back and forth between the staff. Whilst we recorded him talking about his daily activities at the club, we didn’t have him in casual conversation. A workaround was achieved by recording Rick acting as a groundsman in Hackney’s Victoria Park and managing to represent Will’s voice with an old recording Rick had of some steam railway volunteers in the east of England. 

Copyright AELTC Ltd

Top of Henman Hill at 6am

The day with the young people (plus a visually impaired tennis player) began with Ben’s introduction to the Club and Championships, followed by my presentation of what Foley is and some of the interesting sounds we make and why. Rick then demonstrated what a field recordist does with all their equipment and the various places they go. So with everyone up to speed on the day’s schedule, we took a stroll over to the Broadcast Centre and the awaiting set of objects in our reserved recording space. The previous day Rick and I had compiled a list of different sounds that we wished to record, the participants came up one-by-one and either performed or recorded them. Once complete, we headed over to Centre Court for a turn at recording the young people performing a variety of whoops, hollers, cheers and applause. For fun we also recorded the more recent spectator sound – that of Hawkeye reactions, where the crowd climax a slow clap to a cheer or disappointed sigh when a player’s challenge to a call is displayed on the screens.

Ben having a go himself

Ben having a go himself

That evening Rick and I shared a very welcome ale and scheduled our forthcoming week of editing and subsequent mix. We confidently split up the responsibilities of atmosphere and crowd tracklay for Rick, leaving the tennis play and other ‘Foley’ items to myself. The following week was an interesting exercise in constructing the sound of a day at Wimbledon; tracklaying a sound piece without any picture proved to be frustrating and a learning curve. In the end, I used a classic Nadal vs Federer match as a pictorial guide. This was essential in gauging the timings between the ball hitting the ground after each hit and the time in which a return of serve would occur. 

Some extra challenges we faced during the tracklay included the restriction of working within an audio-only environment. So many ideas that we tinkered with didn’t really work without any visual context. The young people had gotten to meet the Club’s famous Rufus the Hawk (he chases away pigeons from the courts to avoid play disruption). Rick recorded him alongside his handler, Imogen. The young people also did a great job recording his wing flaps (soft leather gloves) and his little bell on his legs (a couple of Chinese bells I found in an antiques market). We edited together a little sequence of him flying around but in the soundscape it sounded a bit miscellaneous; the sound of Rufus would instead be used as part of the one-shots on The Queue bridge. 

Another problem we had was judging the timing of each section. Working out how long to run the introduction and finale sections, how to successfully suggest the start of a match and finish it on Championship point all in a short period of time. There was a lot of back and forth between Rick and myself, there was also a lot of extra recording to do! We worked out that in the absence of visuals, the human voice told our story whilst the sound effects and atmospheres set the scene. We returned to Centre Court and interrupted the lunchbreak of Ben’s colleagues for an extra recording of crowd and applause. This was to help pad out the recordings and also obtain a vital rumble track, the sound of folks arriving and settling into their seats and also for a few tails of applause and cheers fading to silence. Whilst in the Club Rick performed a few players’ grunts and cough track in Court Number 1. My other half was also recruited for the essential umpire track. In fact we’d have been very stuck without said track as often it was vital to maintain the narrative thread. In fact the recordings, by a Wimbledon native herself, were so useful that we had to change the match from men’s to women’s when Ben pointed out that a female umpire would only work on a women’s match. Out went Rick’s Court Number 1 grunts, and we found ourselves back in a London park recording me running around making grunting sounds. Some local dog walkers expressed curiosity and concern.

The primary issue upon tracklaying and ultimately the mix was making these unusual objects really sound like moments of a tennis match. We knew that there would be a little compromise in authenticity when using such unusual items and creative works do (and in my opinion should) receive embellishment and enhancement. Nonetheless, we realised that these recordings of ours needed complimentary treatment by layering up library tennis balls hits, some stadium crowd and the occasional gunshot. We had to come back to the recording process one more time to add some carpet footsteps (tennis players’ feet sound quite scuffy) and, in terms of the ball hitting the net, we recorded a few snaps and shakes of a leather satchel bag strap.

With our soundscape in good shape, we submitted to Ben and quaffed ale in the springtime sunshine (wearing jumpers because this is England). Listen to it here and see a selection of the props being recorded in the movie…

Then we remembered that the days with the young people was filmed. Once edited, Grapefruit Films send over two videos for Rick and I to mix. In fairness much of the mixing process involved me watching him do various things to the production sound and me eating biscuits. We agreed to split up and leave him to mix the videos whilst I complemented the picture with effects from the soundscape where necessary. These videos are great because I get a wonderful opportunity to look back and wonder why on earth I make such ridiculous facial expressions when talking to people. Please help me.

So despite the challenges that came with the brief, we managed to create the soundscape, one-shots and videos without too many headaches. As is always the case, a project with an enthusiastic and creatively minded client makes the challenges seem minimal when compared to the triumphs. We were given feedback from the Club that the young people enjoyed their day with us and found the hidden art of effects recording to be interesting. It was definitely the most creatively challenging project I’ve worked on: trying to come up with items for the tennis ball hits was difficult. Here’s a list of them for your intrigue:

Tennis ball hits – half a coconut shell with some fabric over the top, elastic twang, empty tube of tennis balls and kiwi catching. 

Racquet whoosh – inner tube of bicycle tyre (swung by Rick and myself for altering pitches)

Ball bounce – kiwi bounced on coriander

Player’s feet – shoes on coriander and shoes on carpet

Net hit – long metal strip hit and wobbled, leather satchel bag strap hit and wobbled, microwave beep

Rufus the Hawk – leather gloves, old bells and both Rufus’ voice and that of his handler

Tube of balls open and ball roll out – sweets tub, kiwis, coriander, can of fizzy drink and tin of beans

Opening racquet bag – ruckack zip, shoes velcro and… a racquet (I realise this isn’t the Ben Burtt moment of our careers)

The Club’s learning department will be featuring a sound board on their website at the end of the Championship (it’s almost as if they are too busy doing something else this fortnight). These will be the one-shots that are currently features on the bridge. 

The Club were extremely kind and generous to give Rick and I tickets to see a match this Championship. I went along on Monday and shed an embarrassing tear in Centre Court. I’ve wanted to go since I was a young person (many moons ago) and sat there in my seat beaming all afternoon. I was almost as happy as Djokovic. Anyway, this was all fun and I’m thoroughly grateful to have been a part of it. I’m also grateful to find a fabulous working partner with Rick, I’m hoping we get to do a similar project again soon mate. Here is his own perspective of field recording within the Club’s grounds.

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Rubber Soles, Plastic Foley

Plastic Movie Poster

Today sees the UK theatrical release of heist thriller Plastic. Directed by Julian Gilbey and produced by Terry Stone, the film is based on a true story of a group of university students supplementing their loans with credit card fraud, suddenly finding themselves in need of £5m to get a gangster and the threat of violence off their backs.

Got to say, I’m pretty darn proud to have been in the sound team on this film, coming out of the re-recording theatre, we were all pretty chuffed with the final mix. It’s loud (where needs be) and proud. The Foley sat in nicely, some spot-on recordings by Universal Sound, and got featured nicely in the mix. Mmmm.

Last year I started to be more active in assisting Alex in the hard FX side of our films. Mostly helping out with doors and cars. The doors I love, the cars less so. There’s so much faffing around trying to get the right sound out of a multitude of different library tracks and complimentary elements (animals, tyre squeals, gravel crunch, machinery and miscellaneous sounds in the library named ‘track 01’). Nonetheless, Plastic proved a really thrill to assist on the FX because everything needed a bit of beef and creative attention. It felt good to step up and assist on the more literal parts leaving Alex to get on with his design and the scenes requiring a lot of attention. Of which there were many.

The other challenge on this film was my first venture in looking after the VFX, more to the point, looking after the master sound PT session and trying to maintain its structural integrity once the VFX updates have come in. Alex warned me I’d have a task on my hands, turns out he was right. There was lots of liaising with our picture department and the VFX supervisor, then there were spreadsheets. Oh joyous spreadsheets. There’s quite a lot of organisational considerations looking after these VFX. You’ve got to determine which VFX shots will have to be checked out for sync purposes or needing some more effects laying down. Muzzle flashes need double checking in the session in case the gunshot sync has changed, blood spurts need new sound effects adding to compliment the new visuals, iPhones and laptops need new fx laying down if the visuals have changed and the Foley often needs revisiting in case on-screen typing has changed the keyboard tapping sync.

So here’s the trailer for Plastic. It’s our first Paramount release. Not only was the Foley and effects a pleasure to work on, the mix was damn good fun. Julian has such enthusiasm and awareness of sound post and its impact upon the film’s excitement and emotion. This made me extraordinarily happy.

Plastic is released in UK cinemas today.

A Puzzled Foley Artist

At some point in the autumn of last year, I got a call off my friend and long time collaborator Dean Covill, giving me a heads up on a short film he was working on for Oliver Kember at some time in the then near future. I was reel deep in Foley editing to the point of alcoholism and delirium, so could only grunt a few words back such as “sure” and “of course I’ll have a good, long think about making the sound of a Rubik’s Cube.”

In all honesty, that was the last I thought of it until the morning came when I was supposed to actually get on with the recordings. That wretched, slow realisation of disorganisation dawned upon me and I was left with no option but to rummage around in the Foley boxes and hope for the best.

There’s something to be said for abandoning forward thinking and relying on instinct because I swear that all the times I’ve had oodles of time to prepare and consider forthcoming recordings, I tend to accumulate a whole lot of items that get pulled, bashed, shook and snapped, yet never really hit the mark. Over-thinking gets in the way of instinctive imagination, whereas just glancing round the room will transform an umbrella to a yacht’s sail or an old kettle into a steering wheel . In this instance, I was saved by a 50p toy car and the removable wheel from my plastic stacking drawers.

Rubik's Car

The wheel itself was quite thin so weight was gained from the car. I could place the car’s wheels in the grey wheel’s groove and mimic the rotation and slide of a Rubik’s cube. As long as I held the car’s wheels quite tight whist pushing and twisting it against the grey wheel, the rattle remained muted and clacky rather than thin and annoying.

The short film is entitled Puzzled and drifts back to the 1980s when Rubik’s Cubes were the best thing since Etch A Sketch and the ultimate goal was to be the first kid at school to solve it. As a result, there was quite a lot of fiddling with the car and wheel to do, every now and then the car would slip and it would come loose. I was worried this would all be too noisy and the whole recording would sound like a toy shop falling over, however upon playback with a little level reduction, it slotted into place and felt kinda reminiscent of gun handling Foley; utter ridiculous upon solo, however perfectly feel-good when played against the picture.

I think the whole exercise was a bit of a confidence boost. I’ve got a film coming up in a few weeks where I’ll be the only Foley artist in the recording theatre and the temptation to pre-plan and prepare each and every prop has become harder and harder to resist. In reality however, all Foley artists rely on their intuition to find the right materials to create the correct sound with the perfect performance. Easy!

Anyway, I must thank Oliver and Dean for having me in on this project. I rather enjoyed the story, will link it here if it finds its way online, it’s rather endearing. I also love how each project Dean sends my way there’s some lovely leather satchels to record. This is always appreciated mate, especially because I spent a lot of money buying them from vintage stores before discovering the magic of charity shops.

Both Oliver and Dean are on Twitter. Follow them if you fancy.