Rob Walker Interview | How To Build A Career In Audio Post Production
As we prepare to enrol our first intake on our new Advanced Diploma in Audio Post Production for Film and TV we’ll be meeting up with the team behind the new course. We’ll be finding out about their experiences working in this specialist field, discovering tips and insider knowledge as well as helping you establish how you can make this a rewarding career.
First up Rob Walker, whose studies and early roles in post-production led him to Hollywood as he was starting out, before moving more towards independent left-field cinema and TV.
Rob Walker’s sound work has featured on over 90 productions for film and TV and has been screened at many international film festivals including Berlin, Cannes, London, Venice, and Toronto. And on TV across the UK, Europe, and internationally via the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, SKY TV, RTE, ARTE, TG4, and US PBS.
Rob has played a key role in our new course, devising the curriculum using his expertise and knowledge gained over many years in the industry. We met up with Rob to find out about his background, his tips for getting started in the industry, and some of his personal highlights.
Hi ROB. tell us a bit about your background. how did you get into working in audio post-production?
I did a film degree at the University of Stirling and after I finished my degree I got a job as a runner at a TV post place in Manchester. That was a really important start in the industry. Getting your foot in the door is very important. Also in terms of learning the practicalities of how post-production works, how you deal with clients, understanding the way the tech is used by people. It’s a very important thing to make a bridge from education into the industry.
I then got a scholarship to study at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and part of the scholarship was to intern at different companies. The companies would accept interns in film production, animation, anything related to film production. One was at a studio called Red Zone which was a music studio primarily. They were just starting to get into Pro Tools and I had some knowledge from uni with Pro Tools. So I very much learned alongside the in-house engineer and owner, Dennis Degher. His studio had recorded the Robert Cray blues band, No Doubt’s’ multi-platinum album ‘Tragic Kingdom’. He is a very experienced audio and sound engineer.
I did the usual intern things, took the bins out and made the coffee, got lunch, helped clients out with parking problems and things like that. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything about sound particularly, but Red Zone gave me a very, hands-on very direct, practical experience, developing my skills in Pro Tools in a studio, and as trust builds, so did responsibility. I would set up mics, make copies for clients, do patching and eventually he would leave me to look after the studio if clients wanted to stay late or work a weekend with their own engineer.
But I was also aware that it wasn’t really exposing me to the wider film industry and larger productions. So I found an internship at Digital Domain the visual effects company. It was set up by Stan Winston and James Cameron. Stan Winston was working in model making. He did a lot of animatronics, and James Cameron and was leading the way in terms of developing digital effects, initially for his own films. That was a really valuable experience.
I got to see how visual effects shoots come together, practical wind machines, hydraulics, green screen and all these other different techniques. Also how the structure of the industry works.
I also got to read scripts. The scripts would come in and they would have to make a bid for the cost of visual effects. I would identify where there might be some visual effects needed so the supervisors could go straight to the relevant pages. I saw some very interesting scripts come through, which then later became movies. Like the script for ‘Bringing Out The Dead’ by Martin Scorsese.
I was also a production assistant there for a few visual effects shoots. I researched microscopic photos of insects and bugs for ‘Red Planet’ And the most famous one that I was very briefly involved in was Fight Club. That was filming a scene where the wing gets ripped off an aircraft.
Is that the scene after they’re talking about making soap?
Yes. There’s a very brief shot where he imagines what would happen if the wings get ripped off. And then you basically see out the sides of the plane. You can see the city below, and then there’s all this debris and paper and people just swaying all over the place. They created a mock-up section of an aircraft and then have a blue or green screen around the outside so they could put the city views in digitally afterwards.
The whole plane was on huge hydraulics so that all the people were actually getting thrown around for real. So it was very effective.
when you were working on Fight Club, did you have an idea of how big it would be when it came out?
I was aware that the director David Fincher had already done Se7en, which had been a big hit, and The Game with Michael Douglas. Fight Club was shot on film, not digitally so the film would go to the lab, it would be processed and come back and then the next day you could view it. We watched maybe 3 shots including the one I was involved with, and that was all.
I had no concept of what the movie was until I saw it when it was released, and it was really good and became a kind of a cult film. But I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in visual effects. I was already very focused on sound and that was where I needed to be.
How did you move more in the direction of working in audio post-production?
I did another internship working as a sound recordist on an independent film. I was recording sound on set to a Nagra ¼ “ analogue tape recorder, working closely with the director and cinematographer, actors and crew. My career has been mainly in independent film. I like working in that area for a couple of reasons. I think creatively, they can be more stimulating because every project comes with very different sets of challenges associated with it. And the other thing is you get to have, I think, more creative input and a more direct connection with the director who is making the project. You develop close relationships collaboratively and some turn into good friendships as well. Whereas in a much bigger industrialised, or ‘Hollywood’ type of filmmaking, you can work on some amazing projects, but generally, you’re a smaller cog in a much bigger machine.
‘For me, sound is about creativity and about creating things. I want to feel that I’m doing something that’s of value. That I can feel proud of the work that I’ve done, that it’s something that’s of good quality and that I’ve pushed myself and I’ve done the best thing for the project. Without that satisfaction, it isn’t exciting for me.’
After I left LA aged 25 I got a job as a runner on a feature film called ‘Daybreak’ which was shot in Edinburgh, funded by Film Four. It wasn’t my perfect job, but it was film, and it was more experience. The production sound mixer was also going to be the supervising sound editor, so I made sure he knew I had some skills with Pro Tools and wanted to work more in post-production. He hired me part-time initially as a sound editor, but as we approached the final mix his health declined and he wasn’t able to finish the film. So I had to step up and take the project for a one-week final mix at what is now Warner Brothers De Lane Lea in Soho. That experience really pushed me forward in terms of responsibility and creative work with a director. Changing sound elements as fast as possible to work better during a final mix costing several hundred pounds per hour really cranks up the pressure, which I loved.
How do you describe the work that you do to someone not familiar with audio post-production?
If someone’s not in the industry, job titles mean very little to people. As soon as you say anything to do with sound or films or TV, then they generally think that you hold a boom on set. So, I explain that I’m a sound designer or I’m a sound mixer for film and TV. If you get a slightly positive look, I’ll explain that I work with films after they are edited, adding layers of sound effects, cleaning up unwanted noise and mixing in the composer’s music to make the finished soundtrack you hear.
‘Typically, the sound that’s recorded on location doesn’t create the full impression we want to give the audience. This is because the priority is good clean dialogue. Often the only thing that we can actually use is the actor’s dialogue. Then it’s my job to go through and build a believable world for the audience to listen to.’
So, what you hear when you’re watching a film isn’t the sound that’s recorded during the shoot?
Yes, because, during filming, it’s completely focused on getting the best possible dialogue that you can. So, you know, if somebody opened that door behind me, it would sound ‘distant’ and ‘off-mic’. You would normally replace that with something that sounded better and that you could mix in easily. The other thing is footsteps. Most of the time for example, in a drama, they will lay a rubberized matting on the floor to kill the footsteps. If somebody is speaking and they’re walking at the same time, then the two sounds are mixed together on the track and you can’t separate them. You won’t be able to reduce the level of the footstep and generally, footsteps are a lot louder and more distracting than we might want them to be.
The sound recordist on set will and either put these soft pads on people, on the soles of the actor’s shoes or they will put carpets down. So even if somebody is walking across a wooden floor and in the wide shot, you can see that this is a big wooden floor, in the closeup dialogue shot, they’ll likely be walking on a carpet. So you have to re-introduce the footsteps. That’s the most basic practical sense of that, and a big part of what a foley artist does.
The other thing that you’re aiming to do on set is to exclude the environment as much as possible. If people are in the street, you don’t want the sound of traffic and birds, you just want the dialogue. You can add back the environment in post-production. And also most directors will want to change the environment because the mood of the shot doesn’t always match with the sound that’s in the background. You might have a really tense dialogue scene and next to it is a motorway, and they’ve used it for a visual sense, but you want to exclude the sound of a motorway as much as possible.
Once you’ve restored the sounds we expect to hear, then you spend time building sound which adds to the audience’s immersion in the story. That can be tiny details, like the way someone sips a glass of wine, to the sound of two planets colliding. And everything in between.
What are the three most important skills needed to work in the field that you do?
I’d say that technical skills are of course, important and probably about one-third of the job. However, everyone in the industry is going to assume that you have those technical skills. It’s generally just assumed that you know how to use Pro Tools, edit and manipulate digital audio and you know how to do the job that you’ve been asked to do. The Advanced Diploma makes sure people have that, and more.
The other important things are interpersonal skills. One is the ability to work in a team. So you have to understand what your role is, how you fit into the wider team of the production that you’re involved with. Or if you’ve worked for a broadcaster within the facility or the program making environment that you’re in. But also to be able to form quick working relationships, and put people at ease. That’s why people want to work with you, and your network grows.
Then the third would be you also have to be able to swallow your ego. A lot of the time, you’ll be asked to change things and it might be something that you think sounds great. And it may be that it does actually sound great, but it’s just not right for the story. At the end of the day, the whole thing is all about telling stories, whether it is factual or it’s drama, any kind of genre. If you’re doing something with the sound, which is not telling the story, or it’s working against the telling of the story, then it’s not right.
So you might make this amazing sound that grabs everyone’s attention and you go, wow, isn’t this cool. And everyone goes, ‘yeah, it’s cool. But it’s taking me out of the story because I’m listening to your sound instead of following that character that’s on the screen.’
The other thing that happens as well as things get re-cut and changed a lot. So as you’re working on something, you might spend a day or two days working on a scene, and then before the final version of the film or the show that scene is cut for other reasons. You’re going to do work and that work is going to be thrown away. Now you can look at that as though it’s a waste of my time. Or you can look at it as ‘I did what I needed to do’
how does the course prepare graduates for the industry?
The way I started with the design of the course is to start with the basic chronology of a production. You start with location sound, on set, then gathering sound effects. And then we’ll be bringing those back to the studio, working replacing actor’s lines, if that needs to be done. then fully creating our own sounds in the studio to replace footsteps and other elements. Sound design, where you’re creating may be fantastical things. Then processing sounds in order to create real or unreal environments or influence the mood of a scene and then editing all of that material together to make a coherent story. Mixing those sounds together in the studio and then finally delivering it in the ways that will be accepted by the streamers, broadcasters or distributors that will show your work.
You’ve got that chronology of a project, then it’s a case of following that and making sure that every step that someone would be exposed to is relevant for them. The other thing is to also put a focus on individual creative freedom inside the constraints of a project.
The Advanced Diploma definitely gives students the opportunity to express themselves creatively. And to really make sure that the course offers training and experience and knowledge of the tools that new entrants to the industry will be expected to use. Everything that we teach gives students exposure to the relevant part of the process. As their careers develop, they’ll likely find a specialization within that. This is down to many factors, their own interests, where they end up working if they work freelance or in a facility and other considerations. It’s important that people understand firstly, the whole process and are prepared for an entry-level role in any aspect of that process.
What is the thing that you most enjoy about your work?
The reason I do what I do is because I love working with sound. I can completely lose myself in the world of a film or show for hours or days, shaping the way you hear it. Or going out recording sounds is a type of meditation, where you drift into a very close relationship with the world around you. Equally, the other benefit is you get to work with very interesting people. I meet people from many different backgrounds, different parts of the world. I get to travel. I’ve spent a year in America, lived in Edinburgh, London, Berlin. I’ve travelled to Paris to work on projects, Berlin, Montana, Bologna. None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t been involved in this industry. You get to meet really interesting creative people from many different walks of life and places in the world. And being involved in a creative process gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Thinking about applying to join our first intake? Find out more about the new Advanced Diploma in Audio Post Production for Film and TV on our course page, and register your interest here. Discover the history of our new home at Angel Recording Studios and why not check out our Ultimate Student Guide to our new neighbourhood, Angel, Islington.