Interview with Anna Sulley

Anna Sulley, Sound Editor, Sound Designer and Foley Supervisor, Co-founder of Women who are Sound and known for her work on the likes of The Nativity films, Luna, Game of Thrones: The Last Watch and Kong: King of the Apes, spoke to us about her work and working freelance.


Sulley had not planned a career in sound but rather fell into it by accident. She has always wanted to work in media or a sound related role and had hoped to get into radio production.  “I spent a lot of my college and uni days Djing and making radio packages -recording, splicing tape on reel to reel.  As it turned out, throwing unwanted footage on the floor is the best way to learn to edit!  Decisions are much more permanent than in the digital realm of multiple tracks and multiple undo. I try to remember this way in my and fxs editing and foley recording work. Sometimes that works sometimes not!”


Her first job came about after moving to London. “There was a position that arose in the despatch department at Telecine, a TV and Film Post Production house in Fitzrovia.  After spending a few years running tapes around Soho and then working shifts on reception I got to know the mixers, editors and engineers in the sound department.  I would spend all of my off shift days shadowing them.  When the dubbing assistant moved up I was the next in line and also an easy choice because I was already trained.  However, this didn’t stop the facilities manager at the time questioning the head of sound ‘why on earth do you want to employ her for? Are you sleeping with her or something!!’  The mixer couldn’t believe this; he wasn’t especially liberal but he was suitably outraged on my behalf.  The facilities manager insisted I take a four week VT training course to prove my technical ability.  None of the previous dubbing assistants had to take any course and at least one of them had come straight from despatch just like me.  I passed the technical test easily but failed on the written exam by 2 points. This didn’t make any difference to my boss and I still got the job.  A lot of the course was irrelevant to sound anyway; we were learning how to line up soon to be obsolete machinery like Quads and nothing about DA88s and DATS!!  A few months later the VT operations manager running the course told that if I got too big for my boots he could easily get me put back in despatch! Anyway that was all very paradoxical as the rest of the company wasn’t like that at all; the sound department there was one of the most diverse of any I’ve ever worked in. There was LGBT+ and BAME representation, plus two women on the team including me. Those folks, my boss and the whole of that department taught me so much, and we all remain friends to this day. I feel incredibly lucky that my first job was there.


After Telecine I spent a spell at Blue on Old Compton St before moving from factual over to fiction and joining St Anne’s Post (Ascent). At the time there were three women in the sound department (one mixer and two editors) though sadly over time, all three were made redundant. Only one of the originals out of a crew of eight still works there today.  Outside of foley I don’t know of any London facilities in the TV drama or film world that have in-house female mixers or sound departments with more than one woman or any people of colour any more.  It is a shame that things have progressed this way.  Hopefully that will change and with some of the new studio developments more post work will happen here.  Hopefully that will mean there can be larger in house departments at facilities again as well as a bigger pool of freelance positions.  And those companies will try harder to diversify outside of the usual groups.”


One of her favourite recent projects to work on was ‘The War Below’. The film is based upon a group of British miners in the First world war who tunnelled underneath no man’s land to set off bombs.  “All of the tunnels were made from fibreglass so we needed to completely cover all those scenes and recreate the sounds of clay and mud feet, digging, wiring, army gear etc.  The obvious choice of stage was Twickenham and some of the crew there had worked on the film 1917.  It was great fun to spend some time there with those guys.”


Another is ‘A Serial Killers Guide to Life’ currently on Amazon Prime “It didn’t have a lot of budget but the director and producer instead gave us time.  They both understood the importance of sound and understood how that three point triangle works!!  There was even some time to file swap WIPS with the composer which is always beneficial to any project. I’m very proud of everything we accomplished considering the constraints.  There are some fun sound and comedy moments. We worked on this mainly from home around other projects but it was great to oversee the last days of the final mix at Pinewood.”


‘A Dark Song’ and ‘The Owners’ are a couple of her favourite dialogue editing feature projects.  “I haven’t done a lot of fxs editing work for TV recently but when I was at St Annes I worked on Shameless, No Angels and Hustle to name a few.  These were all great fun to work on and it’s always nice to be a few doors along from the rest of the sound team and in the same building as the directors and execs.  As a thank you for the hard work on two seasons of Shameless the post producer and I were invited up to Manchester for a tour of the set.  I could have been an extra in The Jockey if we weren’t in a rush to get back in time for our xmas party the same day!”


Specialising in FXs and foley brings challenges of creating original moments. “Its not about which plug ins you use but finding the right sounds.  Be that from library or recording your own fresh elements to use raw, layer or mutate.  That said one of the most recent plugins I brought was adaptiverb zynaptiq, that’s a nice fun creative reverb.  I also grabbed Saturn from Fab filter in the sales but am yet to use it in earnest.  I have other plug ins from Infected mushroom, Tonstrum, Sound toys, Cargo Cult etc etc but none of these are crucial. The main challenge of sound design is finding the right ingredients, creating something unique but also understanding the director’s vision and getting on the same page as them.”


“Plug ins for dialogue editing such as RX, Auto align post and Kraken are far more essential. In the fxs editing world having a good library of sounds and being familiar with it, is more important than having all the latest plug ins.  The main challenges of foley recording are, knowing varying styles and speeds of different artists and knowing the limitations of each room you use.  Also making sure you save time for that stand out scene or sequence, knowing in advance if there are any less important things that can be skipped and where music will heavily feature.  I don’t use many plug ins for foley recording but having a decent eq like Fab filter Pro.Q3 and a transients shaper like Oxfords Transmod is useful.  I also keep hearing good things about Spiff from Oeksound.” 


Since the pandemic hit we have all been experiencing challenges of one sort or another and keeping occupied between work and staying motivated when work comes in have just been two that Sulley has found. “I think everyone’s mental juices are lower than normal due to covid and lockdown fatigue. Though the beauty of being a freelancer is you can make your own hours. You can also edit in your dressing gown!! I haven’t recorded a foley session like this yet…”


Keeping with challenges we asked what has been her biggest career challenge. “Proving myself to other people.  Proving myself to myself!! Proving myself to other people…”


As for what she has learnt, she has found just how much she enjoys being outside. “There’s more to life than just the studio! I spent a lot more time out field recording, but also just being in green spaces, being still and quietly listening. It’s the perfect time for reflection.”


“The Slack field recording channel is a good place to go for sound art and field recording inspiration.  It’s also the place to find out about any of the crowd sources being run.  These all raise money for charities but if you contribute you get everyone else’s recordings for free.”


We asked what kit she couldn’t be without. “My smallest portable recorder and predictably I couldn’t live without Pro Tools, it being the industry standard in TV and Film.   But maybe that won’t always be the case.  Hello Reaper!!”


As for the post production industry how has Sulley seen it change and does she think it will continue to change going forward. “Lots of sound designers and editors were working from home anyway, long before Covid.  There’s way more freelancers now compared to the early 2000’s when there were bigger in house teams.  Since Covid mixers have also been working from home more too.  Quite a few have built new studios in spare rooms rather than using hired spaces.  So I imagine they will continue to use these more, at least for premixes. Its useful that the BECTU sound post rate card has guidance on kit and room costs for us all.”