Interview - Emma Butt

Emma Butt, freelance Dubbing/Re-Recording Mixer, Sound Editor and ADR Recordist, has over 12 years of audio post experience. Her credits include Game of Thrones, EastEnders, Alan Bennetts Talking Heads, Dr Who, Silent Witness, Pennyworth, Sanditon and The Dark Crystal Age of Resistance.


Whilst working in Dublin she found herself working mainly on animations and factual and entertainment shows but her ambition was and still is to mix drama shows. “At the time I was using every meeting with my MD to pester him to let me progress more in that area but he kept telling me to “not rush my career” so being the stubborn feck I am, I decided not to listen and find another way in. I knew all the lads I worked with hated recording ADR so I asked to start being trained up in it as a way of getting the drama clients to know who I was. They were happy because once I was trained up and comfortable, they didn’t have to record anymore. I ended up loving the process. It's so fast paced and can be quite stressful due to the technical process but I love the psychology of it. ADR is mostly about how you read the room, read people's body language and how you use that information to make the session go smoother.”


One of the highs of Emmas work is working in a room with other people, the collaboration and the chance to approach a project in a new creative way that she might not have thought of. “It’s the final stage of the process where you see all the elements come together, the sound effects, dialogue, foley, ADR and music, and the clients get to see their months or years of hard work come to life. It’s such a satisfying process. Dialogue editing I feel is like a puzzle, I always compare it to tetris. How can you make all the parts fit to create a smooth dialogue pass? And what ways can you solve problems like background noise, hum, pops and clicks? Is it with noise reduction plugins, eq or by using alt takes? It’s a challenge that I really enjoy. Sound effects editing I’ve never been passionate about. I don’t enjoy the long periods of working alone with no collaboration, I personally don’t find it as challenging as the other aspects of post sound (I can already hear all the SFX editors out there cursing me!) the only time I really enjoy it is when I’m also mixing the project so I can do both at the one time.”


One of Emma’s highlights has been Alan Bennetts “Talking Heads” series. “I got to complete full audio post on 4 episodes of the latest series during the first lockdown which made the whole process even more special. It’s such an iconic series, the writing is incredible and it gave me the opportunity to work with some directors I admire. It was also a challenge because they are all monologues with very little happening in the background so we had to be clever in how we used the sound. Silence played a big part in punctuating some of the sadder and poignant moments which was fun to play around with.”


Game of Thrones is a big highlight of her career. “One of my mentors and now friends, Tim Hands, was ADR supervisor on the show. I learnt so much from working with Tim about how to work with actors and directors, approaches to get the best takes in performance and just generally how to be a good engineer. “


One that is yet to air is a beautiful documentary about the artist Quentin Blake. The documentary is half drawn animation and half real life interviews. It’s been one of the few projects where she has enjoyed sound editing and bringing Quentins beautiful drawings to life.


“One project that I feel most proud about working on is a documentary called “Handsome” which is currently doing the festival circuit. It’s about two brothers, Nick and Alex. Alex has Downs Syndrome. It focuses on  their relationship while  they travel around to different countries speaking with other siblings in the same situation and compare and contrast experiences. We do not see enough on TV about different disabilities, especially down syndrome. Sound wise the most complex aspect was tidying up the dialogue as it has been shot on a budget but it was just so lovely to be involved in such a meaningful project. It’s the kind of work I really want to do more of.”


So what is her favourite bit of kit? “It depends what job role I’m doing. For ADR, mics and a good cueing system are the most important pieces of kit. I personally prefer using the DPA 4060 lav mic and the Sennheiser MKH 416 boom mic. For a cueing system I  love the Colin Broad box or ADR Master. For dialogue editing Izotope RX Advance bundle is just an essential piece of kit for cleaning up noise and other issues. Mixing wise, a good EQ is my first point of call. I love the Waves Q10 EQ for notching out unwanted frequencies and the Avid EQ 7 band for doing a more general EQ. When it comes to plugins I always want something that’s simple and straightforward to use because there's never enough time on a final mix day to faff about with too many options. Lately I’ve had to use Nugen Halo Upmix a lot on projects and it's been amazing. Straightforward to use and its not created any artefacts on the music I've been upmixing.” 


Work practice has changed due to Covid and there are many new ways of working however much of Emma’s work process has stayed the same. “I am doing less ADR recording because I don’t like the remote recording process. As I mentioned, ADR, to me, is a lot about physcology and body language and that is something that cannot be done over a screen. Remote mix reviews were a thing for a while but already that has started to change back for me and the biggest difference is less people in the room and more mask wearing and testing. I think the biggest thing that will be here to stay is more flexibility. Some clients enjoy just getting Quicktimes of their mixes to review, especially if they have children or live outside of London, and some prefer being back in the room and I think going forward that will stay. Otherwise I’ve already seen the industry slipping slowly back into its comfort zone.”


We asked Emma how she sees the post production landscape changing over the next 5 years. “Big question! I know how I’d like to see it, which is more diverse craft and technical teams, fairer hiring practises instead of the “little black book” methodology, and better understanding and support around people’s mental health. Whether all that will happen though is hard to say. We’ve had a few years now of big movements like #MeToo and the BLM protests and people saying the right things and having good intentions but those words and intentions have not materialised to real change. People keep saying to me “change takes time” the problem is the industry has had far too much time to embrace these changes already and they haven’t. I think in the next 5 years we need to see change enforced through policy change.”


“Before COVID I did think the industry was stepping more towards a freelance model with facilities cutting down on creative team numbers but in the last few months I’ve seen that change back to a staff model which has surprised me. I think we will see massive skills shortages coming up, before COVID we were already seeing a shortage of skilled dialogue editors, that problem hasn’t gone away and if anything it’s about to get exacerbated by the amount of working coming into the country. Within the next 5 years this really needs to be addressed.” 


Emma undertook a study about Diversity on behalf of the Lenny Henry Foundation. “My findings were not great. The study looked at 36 of the highest rated TV shows over the 3 month Autumn period across 6 main UK broadcasters, BBC 1, BBC2, ITV, SKY 1, Channel 4 and Channel 5.”


The findings highlighted the lack of diversity across post production sound crew with only one of the 46 male sample identifying as mixed race. It also highlighted a lack of gender diversity 6 of a sample of 55 people identifying female with no women working re-recording mixers in Drama. “There are no opportunities or schemes currently available for training or progression for post-production sound freelancers, especially for those moving between short form or factual into drama. I also interviewed 5 people as part of my research, 2 women and 3 men from black or ethnic minority backgrounds. For me, all the stories I was told hit hard but there were 2 eye opening accounts. One was a black participant who explained that there have been occasions when, while meeting with new clients about upcoming projects, he has felt it best to bring a white male colleague with him to meetings. He felt that this was necessary just for a white colleague to be present to reassure the clients, as he knows he will encounter suspicion and resistance, as he is “entering the lion's den […] they’re going to look at me and think is this person fine, look me up and down 3 or 4 times and I know it’s not a conscious decision on their part, it’s just part of their programming”


“The other was a female participant who explained that while meeting with a Sound Supervisor about a prospective freelance job role on his team, she was told “Well I like you, we get on but the problem is what if you join our crew and what if two of you started dating and it ended badly, that would disrupt the entire balance of the crew and I’m not sure about taking on that kind of risk.”


“I knew starting out the research that the figures were going to be bad but even I didn’t expect how bad they were. Hearing these stories and seeing the figures in black and white just made me want to get up and help because I was so angry and ashamed that the industry I love could treat people like this. I felt I couldn’t be afraid of speaking out about how out of date our sector of the industry is and how badly in need it is of reform when it comes to hiring and support systems for career progression no matter the consequences. I know that there are currently companies and people who will not hire me or work with me because of how much I speak out and I know that I could get to a point where I may not work again which is terrifying but until the system changes to be more inclusive I have to try. Since my report came out I’m contacted privately and told more accounts like the ones above. They are by no means isolated issues but widespread problems.” 


So how can we address the problems? “Hiring is the big thing. We all know how it works, people in hiring positions go to their little black book of contacts and hire the same people again and again. I am in no way naive to why it’s done. Budgets and schedules are getting tighter and tighter so people in hiring positions feel as if they can’t take risks and instead need to hire people they know and trust to do a good job. It makes sense. But the problem there is that if you look at this industry 10/15 years ago, it is predominantly white men, few women and even fewer people from black or ethnic minority backgrounds. So there are rarely people from those demographics to repeat hire. Add on to that drama is massive in the UK right now and is the source of the majority of work but you will not get hired in any drama sound role without having drama credits on your CV but the only way to get drama credits is by someone taking a risk and giving you an opportunity.”


“We do have some women and people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds who have either managed to break through all the barriers and get into the drama and feature world and we have others who have managed to get so far but would like to progress further but can’t. We also have a new generation starting out that is more diverse but again are struggling to progress. The hiring system is broken and needs to be fixed, not just for the sake of diversity but because we are going to face a very bad skills shortage soon if we don’t address it. We need to provide support and training to freelancers at both entry level and mid career level to help address the issue. I’ve designed a scheme based on the BBC Continuing Drama New Directors scheme (which has been proven to be successful in addressing diversity) which I know will work and I am currently trying to get funding to make this happen so we can start seeing our sector heading in the right direction. The other change that would help is diversity quotas across all craft and technical roles imposed on all new commissions by broadcasters, which will be my next battle. If you look at post houses across the UK, excluding a very small handful, you will find they have predominantly white male sound teams. No diversity. Until some are told that in order for them to work on a project that their team needs to be more balanced, personally, I cannot see that changing. I’ve been told by people that “change takes time” and for anyone reading this who thinks that, think about how long you have been working in this industry and how much change has actually happened up until now? Because I’m 14 years in and still more often than not the only woman on a post sound team and certainly the only person from an ethnic minority background.”


The Pandemic has also affected those in Education with many seeing opportunities they may have had pre-Covid disappear. “Don’t get disheartened. Entry level positions will start appearing again as the industry recovers. I’ve seen so many runner positions being listed lately which has been reassuring. The main thing is do your research. If you want to work in a company, research the companies in your area that you’d like to work for, find out who the head of client services is and email them but make the emails personal to the company (like what shows they have worked on).  The head of audio is rarely in charge of hiring runners. If you want to go freelance on a sound team, research the sound supervisors working on shows and movies you admire and again reach out to them. But please remember, people do get busy, if you don’t get a response after a few weeks, send a polite follow up. Practise, practise, practise. The majority of post facilities and freelancers use Pro Tools so know the software inside out and learn your shortcuts so you can work at a fast pace.”