Emma Butt // reflections...
Emma Butt is a Re-Recording Mixer, Sound Editor and ADR recordist currently working as a Dubbing Mixer. With over 9 years experience in post-production sound on a variety of projects from mixing on short-form commercials, short films, and animations to ADR recording for dramas and feature films. Credits include; Games of Thrones, Vikings, and Ripper Street
[C] To date you have had a diverse career in sound. Could you give us some insight into your journey?
[E] I was very lucky to get a job straight out of Uni as a runner in the largest post-production house in Dublin at the time, Screen Scene. I made sure to sit in with the sound engineers who worked there at every possible chance I got and asked for small projects to work on during my spare time. It showed management how much I wanted to work in audio and meant they promoted me after only 5 months to start looking after audio bookings for our short form department. I spent another 5 or 6 months there getting to know all the clients and how the bookings and rates side of the business worked before fully moving into audio as an audio assistant in short form. I honestly hated working in short form, it just wasn't for me and I wanted to be in long form. The turnaround on jobs [was] so quick that you never got to put any proper love or attention into your work.
I was lucky that in Ireland, as the industry is so small, no post house could just focus on either long form or short form, drama or features, you had to do everything. It meant trying to move from one department to another was a lot easier. After about a year in short form I moved to long-form starting out in entertainment shows then kids’ animations, where I looked after all audio post for any animation that came in, and then more into ADR for drama and feature. Throughout my career there, I was lucky to always have a variety of work and never just focus on one area. I have always wanted to mix for drama and feature and although the opportunity came along in Dublin to start doing that, I knew the opportunities were going to be few and far between with three other mixers ahead of me, so I decided to move to the UK. The move meant having to take a step back in my career from where I was, but it was worth it and I am slowly but surely getting to a place where mixing drama and features can happen.
[C] What would you say are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt whilst working within sound?
[E] A sound mix is never your mix. It is the clients. What I mean is that if you are working on a project you need to remember that your client, (the director), has most likely been working on this for more than a year. It’s their baby. The sound mix should always be the fun part where everything they have worked hard to achieve finally starts to come together, and they see their vision come to life. If they decide that they don't like something you've done, you cannot take it personally. I've seen so many engineers fail at this and tell clients they are wrong or argue with clients over how something should sound. By all means, you should always give your opinion but at the end of the day this is the client’s project and you need to respect their choices. The other lesson I've learned is never afraid to ask questions or for help no matter how experienced or inexperienced you are. Technology within sound is changing so much that it is hard to keep up with it. There are still things I might not know how to do but I always find someone with more experience and ask for their help. I think sometimes people are afraid that asking questions will show them as not being capable of doing the job and that's not the case. You have more chance of fecking up something by not asking for help than you do if you ask.
[C] How important do you think sound, or the absence of sound is to the success of a piece of moving image?
[E] Sound is 50% of a film or TV show if not more. Just think of any horror movie you have ever watched. If you watched that movie without the sound, would it still feel as intense and scary? Sound is used to help convey emotions that visuals alone just cannot do. It helps us to bring the moving picture to life and bring us into the world on screen. In our everyday life, most of us are lucky enough to hear. We associate certain sounds with certain places, emotions and experiences. If we failed to put those everyday sounds alone onto a moving picture, we would fail at making the viewer feel like they are part of that world. They wouldn't be nearly as engrossed or emotionally involved as they would be with the sound.
[C[ What does the term art mean to you?
[E] Art is a language of its own that speaks to everyone. It is not just a painting hanging on a wall or a sculpture in a museum, it can be anything and everything. A radio drama, a piece of clothing, a book, can all be a piece of art. It can be both beautiful and ugly. It is something that speaks to each and everyone one of us in a unique way.
[C] Would you please describe your process? What software and equipment do you use in production and post-production?
[E] It is completely determined by the project. With something like an animation where you have nothing but the script, I will always really go through the script in advance of us recording any voices and start getting any ideas of how the soundscape should be and if we need to record any additional walla for each character that could be useful in the mix. With something like a documentary though the visuals will always determine how I approach the sound, so I try to get a rough cut as early on in the process as possible. It also gives me a better idea of how well the sound has been recorded on location and what plugins I might need. With any ADR project, I try to get the material a few days in advance so I can watch through the scenes, get to know the characters and their voices and see if anything has been missed on cue sheets that should be picked up.
Tool kit wise: Pro Tools, a good set of speakers like genelecs and a decent Mac (I'm currently using a Mac Mini that I love) are the best starting point. After that I would be lost without RX Advance bundle which helps with all dialogue cleaning up issues. My go-to EQ is always the Q10 for really detailed EQing and I’m really loving the Space reverb at the moment as it gives you so many options on impulse responses. For ADR, I love using the Colin broad system for cueing actors, it's simple and straight to the point but I have been testing a new system called Voiceq that I am really enjoying and can see the huge benefits it would have in overdubbing work.
[C] You are a mentor for Media Trust, an organisation that allows young people to learn from a range of industry professionals. What have you personally gained from this?
[E] The work the Media Trust do is incredible, and I feel really privileged to help in some small way. They assist young people from diverse background to get into the creative industries. The big thing I've noticed from my work with the young people is just how restrictive this industry can be to get in, even at an entry-level position. For a runner position some young people are expected to have a Uni degree, already know how to use multiple different software, be able to live on basic wage in one of the most expensive cities to live in and work completely flexible hours. If you've come from a household that may not have been able to afford to send you to Uni as it is so expensive, you are already at a disadvantage and most companies won't even interview you let alone hire you. If you have family commitments which means your hours need to be somewhat consistent this again rules you out from being interviewed, never mind hired. All the young people I've met on these schemes are hard-working, passionate and creative. They constantly make me feel lazy in my work - they work so hard and do so much, yet they struggle to get their foot in the door. Media Trust is trying to break down that barrier and show companies that there are amazing young people out there ready and willing to work hard that they need to stop overlooking.
[C] You’re on the Council of The Association of Motion Picture Sound, Would you tell us more about what the role entails?
[E] AMPS were set up the aim of creating an organisation where members could exchange information, solve common problems and keep abreast of rapidly changing technology but has grown to include technical demonstrations, talks by prominent figures, networking, film screenings, mentoring, training and UK wide social events. As a member of Council, it's my job along with others, to make sure the organisation continues to do this. When I joined Council our mentor scheme had fallen a bit by the wayside. All members of Council are volunteers and sometimes work does get in the way. I think mentoring is hugely important no matter what point of your career you are at, so I decided to restructure and relaunch it and so far, it's going really well. Sound and the people who work in it are so often overlooked and under-appreciated, so I think organisations like AMPS are incredibly important and personally it's an honour to be involved.
[C] You actively support the tags #WomenInFilm, #WomenInSound and have shared your experience alongside other women in the production community. How important has the growing movement of women in film been to you? What do you do personally to get involved?
[E] For so long I've had to hear the phrase from clients, "oh, a female engineer, I haven't worked with one of you before" and frankly I am really sick and tired of it. There are so many women in sound in the UK that are just not on enough peoples’ radar. They are not given the same opportunities men are. The knock-on effect #timesup and #metoo has had on productions actively trying to use more women has been hugely important. I have started using the #FemaleFilmmakerFriday to promote one #Femalesoundie each week to demonstrate the number of talented women in sound there are. Productions, Post-Production Supervisors, Producers, Directors really everyone who has been involved in the hiring of crew have for too long stayed with using the same people time and time again. In a way I totally get that, stick with a team you know that works, but the big problem is [that] the teams are predominately middle-aged white men because that’s how the industry looked not too long ago. Slowly we are starting to see the decision makers realise that not only the cast on screen, but their crew need to reflect the diverse world we live in. For me personally, until I see every major production have at least one woman on their sound crew, I will continue to feel we just aren't doing enough.
[C] Is there anyone you aspire to work with on sound?
[E] The dream is always to work for Skywalker Sound. I don't think you'll meet anyone in Post-Production sound who doesn't say that. Directors wise I've been incredibly lucky to already have worked with one of the people I wanted to, Lenny Abrahamson. I'd love to work with director Edgar Wright at some stage. I think his approach to sound in his films is incredible. He's someone who understands the importance of it and how it can completely change a scene. In general, though I want to start working with more female directors but in order for that to happen more female directors need to be given bigger and better opportunities.
[C] What are some of your favourite films/shows with specific reference to the use of sound within them?
[E] Film-wise Baby Driver was just a masterpiece. Every piece of music and sound design works harmoniously together. They decided to sound edit in beats and bars instead of time code so that all real-world sounds syncopated perfectly with the music. TV wise I have to say Game of Thrones even though I might be slightly biased. Paula Fairfields’ work on the Dragon roars alone is incredible, but it's the scenes with ice that really impress me. The white walkers, although they look terrifying, they sound terrifying too. There is so much tiny detail gone into bringing them to life.
[C] What are you working towards?
[E] Well, my goal is working more on mixing features and drama. The aim for this year is to start mixing more feature documentaries and indie, low budget features and build up my credit list and experience with the aim of mixing drama and features within the next five years. If it happens amazing but if it doesn't that’s ok too. I love the work I get to do right now and I wouldn't change it for the world.