Ben Wilkins is an English supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer based in Hollywood who won a BAFTA for his work on Whiplash. With other credits including Source Code and Star Trek, here he tells us how he helped to turn an indie film about a drum prodigy into an award-winner.
“Whiplash was a special case because of the complexity of interweaving pre-recorded music, the actors playing music on set and then recording some afterwards.
What we did was took equipment out to the set and we were able to make a computer model – the technical term is an impulse response – of the way the spaces used in the film sound in real life. What you do is you play a series of very strange noises very loudly into the room and then you record how the room reacts. You could say it’s a bit like echolocation with bats. We take all those recordings away and then send them off to a company who build actual echo packages which then we could apply in post-production to the sound. It was miraculous.
This movie involved an awful lot of editing. We were moving the instruments around by very small amounts.
For example, we might have started off with the real on-set recording of [actor Miles Teller] playing the drums because he’s also talking to someone, then we would switch to some of the pre-recorded drums and then we might end with some of the post-recorded drums. A lot of subtleties that might escape the casual listener.
The biggest job was putting back all the sounds a band would make in a room or on stage. Paper rustling, music stands creaking. The engineers who did the pre-recorded material went to great pains to take out all of the noises that they considered extraneous. All they want to hear is the instruments playing. We laughed about it at the time – they spent hours taking it all out, we spent hours putting it all back in.
The common conversation when I tell people my job is, ‘Oh you do sound for films. Is that the Foley because I know what that is?’ Visually most people can connect with the Foley.
A lot of times I say yes, that’s sort of what I do. My job’s a lot more complicated because actually I have to tell the Foley people what to do and then I have to edit that so it’s in sync with what the people on camera are doing and then I have to mix it so it sounds like it’s really happening in that room at that time.
To become a sound editor, you need a love of film and story, that’s really important. There is a strange magic that happens when you close your eyes and are able to either capture a sound or manufacture a sound that has a visceral, emotional response. When we’re making films, that’s all I’m interested in. Supporting the storytelling. It’s just an advanced form of sitting around the campfire telling stories.”
How did you get started? “I was not a good student and my parents were very worried about me. They asked a friend who owned a studio in Soho to give me something to do over the summer. I started there as a runner when I was 16.”
Early influences? “A really important influence for me was the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio series which I listened to growing up.”
First film? “Candyman. I came over to Los Angeles to help with that, ostensibly for a very short period of time. That was a two-week holiday in 1991.”
First time you supervised? “It was a really sweet little film actually called The Babysitter’s Club – one of the first forays into tween fiction.
Strangest job? Body Of Evidence. “There were some wet squishy sounds that were only mixed in the unrated version.”
Which movie are you most proud of? “I’d say Silent House, which was kind of a precursor to Birdman, as it was shot as one take. That was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.”
What was it liking winning a BAFTA? “It was a gigantic surprise, as you could tell from the speech, I was very unprepared. Although we knew what we had done was special sounding, we weren't expecting to win at all. What a night!”