The Sound Architect speaks to Sound Editor Lucy Johnstone.
Lucy is a Sound Editor at Envy Post Production and mixes Short Films in her spare time. Originally a classical musician (playing the Flute, Piano and singing mostly) she entered the life of Audio Post Production about 5 years ago and has quickly risen up the ranks. Her credits include Top Gear, Bear Grylls, Banged up Abroad, The Voice and Gold Rush. She won the prestigious award of ‘Broadcast HotShot 2013′ – This commends the “Top 30 most talented Under 30s” in the Television Industry across the UK and a full write up (and what she calls an ’embarrassing’ photoshoot) was featured in Broadcast Magazine in August.
Lucy’s full credits can be seen here at her imdb page: Lucy Johnstone IMDB
How did your journey into audio begin?
At 18 I thought I might be interested in working in the TV industry having grown up immersed in it. My mother being a dancer and Choreographer for The Benny Hill Show and my father running CTVOB, one of Europe’s leading Outside Broadcasting companies. I wasn’t 100% sure about what specifically I wanted to do so didn’t go for a vocational degree. I studied Classical Music at The University of Nottingham and after being told there that I has a ‘very good ear’, it seemed obvious to move into some sort of ‘sound’ department. I didn’t want to follow in my father’s footsteps, outside broadcasting didn’t interest me much, so he explained to me what Post Production was. After a number of work experience placements (these are so so important, almost more so than your degree I have found out) I landed a job as a runner at Envy Post Production. I spent hours outside of my shift training with the assistants in the Machine Room, having to learn almost more than most other runners because I didn’t know any of the background theory that they had all learnt from their Vocational degrees. Once I was promoted to Audio Assistant and was settled in this position, I concentrated on spending extra hours in the studios, watching the editors and mixers, practicing and asking questions, before finally moving up to where I am today.
What has been your proudest project so far?
I worked on two series made by the production company Nutopia called The British and Mankind: The Story of All of Us. I am proud of my work in these as there were number of large battle scenes that were mute except for a few lines of diagloue. As you can imagine, a blank canvas for something like this is a sound person’s dream! In particular, in episode 2 of The British, ‘People Power’, there was a battle scene at the end between one side of men with bow and arrows, and another with men on horses with swords. I spent a while finding a variety of fx for the wood of the arrows, the metal of the swords, punches, body falls, arrows into shields etc, manipulating these for variety and to fit the timings of the motions. I also had fun behind the microphone recording foley with elastic bands (for the bows) and grass and wood for the hustle and bustle preparing for the battle for example. The scene also required more sound design aspects during CGI sequences of hundreds of arrows flying through the air, slow motion sections, flashbacks and creative camera movements, all to increase the drama of the scene. I will always remember watching the final mix in the studio with music and was definitely very proud.
What has been your most challenging project so far?
Surprisingly, my most challenging project was not one that required weird and quirky sound designing following an unusual brief. It was in fact a project for which I had to design an incredibly real sound scape; enhancing the viewers’ experience without over-dramatising the situation. No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka is a feature doc about the Sri Lankan Civil war and has been used around the world to try to prove the involvement of the government for the murder of over 40,000 civilians. The film sparked up campaigns for the Queen and David Cameron to Boycott the Common Wealth meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013. The reason this is all important is that there were numerous youtube videos and camera footage of explosions, point blank shootings, fleeing civilians, and suicide bombers that have all been in the public domain prior to the release of the film. The sound designer in me wanted to go to town with the explosions, the screams, the drama of body parts being shot etc, but i was not allowed to as the lawyers said this would be an inaccurate depiction of events and would not hold up in court. So I had to add to the experience, using lots of movement of clothes and equipment, footsteps, explosion of exactly the right intensity, gun shots with very minor blood splatter and dramatic quirks etc. I spent 6 days straight on the entire edit. I also had to take into consideration the quality of footage – a clean effect would sound fake in a juddery pixelated video. This then took extra time altering the effects at different intensities depending on the type of video. I also had to take into consideration that this would be shown in a cinema in 5.1.
What would be your dream project to work on?
Feature films are hard to break into, so it seems more realistic for me to set my sights on bigger television programmes first, and perhaps use the skills I learn there as stepping stones. (although I’d never say no to J.J.Abrams if he offered me work on the next Star Trek movie!!) For television I guess I’d love to work on/have worked on: The X-Files, Game of Thrones, Whitechapel, Fringe, Heroes, Sherlock, Lost, Luther and V…is that list too long?! I guess there’s a theme there…
Is there a particular sound that you’ve worked on that will always stick with you?
I am the Sound Designer for a series by Windfall Productions called Strip The City in which there are several CGI sequences with buildings exploding, peeling back, ground falling away and materials flying around etc. The brief was they wanted an “Inception style warped sense of reality”. For the building explosions, the cgi had layers of glass flying off and swirling around, so the first thought was to create the ‘glass tornado’ – the winds and clinky glass fx i layered up sounded too high-pitched, clean and hollow however, and didn’t have a dream-like feel so I dulled the glass sfx combinations by taking out the top end slightly. I then wanted to give it some depth so instead of adding bass synths and descending drones, I found some whale calls (an idea stolen from the inception sound designers), pitch shifted them down, slowed them down and reversed them. I whacked on a reverb and hey presto! the whole effect of this sequence has lots of other elements including many whooshes and clicky drawbridges, and a sped up and pitched shifted (to the point of soundinging almost electric) howly wind aided in reating the sence of un-reality.
What advice would you give to aspiring audio professionals who want to be where you are?
No matter what degree you have, whilst it will no doubt be useful to have, you must have work experience under your belt. This shows you are serious about the industry and have had hands on, relevant experience. The industry is fast changing which may render some your university modules redundant. Once you are there, do not expect things to be handed to you on a plate – you need to work really hard in such a busy and competitive industry. There is always someone else capable who wants your job! Never doubt yourself or get frustrated when you don’t know how to get the exact sound you want, there will always be things you can learn. Audio post production is incredibly competitive so you need learn how to improve off of constructive criticism. In most creative jobs, how good your work is will be a matter of opinion; so do not give up if you are asked to make changes. Learn from this. And finally, BE FRIENDLY. Technology you can learn, but social skills are harder to teach. If clients trust you and enjoy your company, you will get requested for work. If you don’t crack under pressure and keep the clients at ease during ‘technical malfunctions’ they will want to work with you again. People skills are one of the most valuable skills you can have in this industry.
Any major Do’s or Don’ts for applications and show reels?
Do self promote (social media is a great tool nowadays)
Don’t make your CV too long. 2 pages MAX.
Do get lots of work experience placements before applying for jobs.
Don’t make your reel too long/full of lots of the same type of thing.
Don’t oversell yourself – it is unlikely your Uni degree will have given you enough experience to apply for mixing roles straight away.
Do be willing to start at the bottom on little money.
Do be persistent – companies get lots of CVs every day. Always follow up.
DO BE FRIENDLY.
What lies in the future for you now?
At the moment. Top Gear and The Voice are keeping me pretty busy (you’d be surprised how tricky those crowds can be!) plus another Windfall series called Rise of the Machines with a ‘transformers but not too sci-fi’ sound design brief is introducing me to new fx and manipulation techniques which is widening my skillset and knowledge. We also have a possible new Nutopia series soon which, if anything like the two mentioned earlier, will hopefully have some great CGI sequences and recon/battle scenes for me to get my hands on.
In the near future, I will be mixing a new Short Film on the side called The Reverie. It is an Apocalyptic Fairytale with nearly no dialogue so it will predominantly be sound design and music driven. The composer and I will be working closely together to make it difficult for the viewer to differentiate between sound of nature and the sound of her radio, which will be fun. The challenging aspect of this will be mostly the diajetic music coming from this radio drifting in and out of signal, possibly between stations, and mixing it with my etherial ambient background. I can’t say too much more but I look forward to working on it! (@theReverieFilm) We have a Kickstarter Campaign starting on the 9th March to raise funds for Camera Hire, and taking the production crew and actors to location amongst other things so keep an eye out for this!
Long term future? who knows! That’s the fun of this industry I guess! I’ve had a great year and being named a Broadcast Hotshot will be difficult to beat but I’m ready for you 2014, gimme what you got!
We hope you enjoyed that interview as much as we did! Keep up to date on Lucy’s sound work at her twitter page: @lucyjohnstone4
Thanks for reading!
The Sound Architect
Interview by Sam Hughes