A Safe pair of Hands

Tim Hands, award winning Sound Editor, took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Behind the Glass. Known for his work on Game of Thrones, Les Miserables, Pennyworth, The Dark Crystal:Age of Resistance and Mama Mia, Hands discusses his career and the new technologies he has found himself using since the break of the pandemic.


After leaving college he trained as picture editor working as an assistant for many years. “We worked on 16mm film and all of the sound was edited using 16mm magnetic sound stock” added Hands. “The editing process was the same as editing the picture, utilising a splicer and sticky tape, but the turnaround time was fast, we barely had a week to do the task which included sourcing and adding sound effects and atmosphere. By the standard of things I do today it was pretty rudimentary, but it was also a great starting point. I specifically enjoyed editing the production sound, or dialogue as we often refer to it in drama.”


Since the process of editing was more mechanical then, it required people with a wealth of experience to edit and making a move to become an editor was a far slower process than it is today. “As my career progressed I was getting plenty of work as an assistant but struggling to make the break as an editor. I had been working on the drama, Peter Kosminsky's ‘15: The Life And Death of Philip Knight’ as a picture assistant and at the end of my contract I was moved over into the sound department where I became the Dialogue Editor, it was at this point I first came across ADR and attended several sessions as an observer to learn the process. Working in drama I realised that there were far more sound editors than picture editors. On each project there were more jobs for Sound Editors too and after the success of my first job as a Dialogue Editor I was offered more work and it seemed like a good opportunity to step up.”


It became apparent that Hands was good at encouraging actors to recapture the performance being replaced, the subtleties and musicality of a line, so soon found himself being brought in to cover ADR sessions. “I suppose the show that really cemented this path was Game of Thrones. Most of the cast were UK based and Post Sound was done in the US from Season 2 onwards. It wasn't practical to have a US editor going back and forth and less economic to have one come over for the duration.” Hands had covered the UK ADR sessions for the pilot and David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the Show-runners liked what he had done and asked that he be involved on Season 1. Everyone was very happy with the results and Hands was invited back every season thereafter. “I was left to record both the cast and background actors. I learnt an awful lot about how to record ADR and Loop Group on that show. There are some techniques that I developed that other people are now using. I loved the story too, so for me it wasn't just a job, I was a fan.”


A particular project challenge came when shooting all the ADR for Game Of Thrones. “We covered a huge amount over the 8 seasons and I was there for almost all of it. Without a Director it was down to me to get the performance, that and creating all of the crowd voices for the various setting and battles was hugely demanding, I came up with some pretty creative ways of capturing what we needed. Making 10 voices sound like hundreds was hard work.”


As for other projects, Hands has been fortunate to work of a variety of films and TV shows. “There has been some stand out projects” said Hands. “Kenneth Branagh's 'Hamlet’ is one, mainly because I had always avoided Shakespeare; couldn't bear it at school! The film really opened my eyes to Shakespeare and Richard Briers performance in particular was sublime, it was pretty good meeting him a the screening too, I never imagined I'd be having lunch with Tom from “The Good Life”.


‘Elizabeth' was great. It was such an outstanding film, great performances and a fabulous sound track. I met Cate Blanchett for an ADR session, it was an all day session and over lunch I told her I thought she was captivating in it and told her she would have a massive career off the back of her performance. She just laughed, but I was right!”


‘Chicken Run’ was his first experience of editing sound for animation. “It was immensely hard work. I think the impression is that since it is all pre-recorded there is little to do for a dialogue editor, quite the contrary; the work is fiddly and intense. The best bit was recording all the chickens in the background. To give the farmyard chickens character we tried a mix of women, and men doing pantomime dame voices. The women's voices worked so much better, it just felt right. So I had nine women in a studio with me for about four days all huffing and puffing about in northern accents covering all the background chatter for the scenes, it's a shame none of that was filmed it was hilarious.”


“The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers was fabulous. I actually edited the FX on that film and left all the dialogue, apart from the Loop Group session to other editors. I saw some clips of the film as it was being cut and I just had to do it so I turned down Harry Potter 3 to do so. I wasn't alone in thinking that it may not be a smart move, but I wanted to follow my instinct. Recreating the sound tracks of the various Sellers films meant a lot of research to get things right. I recall the director Stephen Hopkins asking me to remove an overhead plane from a sequence from ‘Being There’. I pointed out that it was in the original film and passed overhead at exactly that point, so we left it in. We mixed the film in LA and it led to my first Emmy nomination and subsequent win. I guess it was a good decision after all.”


Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was something that Hands and his team had never done before. It's a crazy mix of live action and animation. “I'd never worked with puppets before. We replaced every single line of dialogue and breath with a new cast.” The on set voices of the Puppeteers were entirely re-recorded with a selected cast of actors. “We had to prep and record ten thousand plus lines of dialogue for the 10 episodes, every word breath and reaction for a cast of over one hundred characters. We also had to do this against a moving target of recuts. The actors were recorded in different countries, sometimes weeks apart working to different cuts. Their performances were different to the on set recordings of the puppeteers, the character voice, timing and delivery varied and we had to make it all fit in sync with the mouths and movements. It took months, but we did it. It was a cross between live action, Animation and ADR, it was every aspect of my job on steroids! It took months and drove us all nuts, but I am immensely proud of what we as a crew achieved, it's brilliant!”


Hands has a Pro Tool rig, with Dynaudio speakers and Sennheiser headphones in his studio. “Dialogue does not require a particularly powerful computer so I am currently using a Mac Mini pimped to the max in terms of processing power and RAM. Other than that I have a condenser mic permanently set up so that I can fly in background lines if required and a bundle of audio processing Plug ins. I'm not that precious about speakers or the computer but a good set of headphones is essential so for hardware I would struggle without my Sennheiser HD1000s. Plug in wise I couldn't do my job now without Edicue ADR cueing software, Ediload EDL software and Izotope RX noise reduction.”


When the pandemic lockdown started Hands found himself in a situation, like many, where studios were not prepared to have staff or cast travelling in order to work. “We all had to remain at home and find workarounds” he added. “Inevitably this involved finding suitable home recording solutions. There are a number of options that we have been using, some involving the supply of a portable Pro Tools rig along with microphones and in some cases sound proofing. Others supplied a better quality mic to attach to an iPhone or similar and then arranged a suitable time to have A Zoom conference call during which the actor could record into their phone while watching a screen shared Quick time with wipes. I was not allowed to use any sort of screen sharing software because the studio was concerned about security, so we used Todd AO Actor's Mobile App for iPhone.” Hands supplied as many of the cast as he could with external mics and advised on how to sound proof a space in order to record at home. “The App is very clever and provides on screen text, wipes and audio all of which can be toggled on and off in the settings. The limitation is the size of the clip that can be supplied, usually one line at a time, which for a complex scene means difficulty for the actor to get a grasp of an overall performance. In such cases we also supplied a full version of the scene via PIX, an online secure viewing system. After a briefing we left the actor to record alone and then gave feedback on the supplied recordings.”


“We would start with a test run to check quality, following which we would make adjustments to the environment and technique, then once we were happy we left them to it” added Hands. “Some cast members would record entire scenes on a run whilst watching the scene on PIX using Twisted Wave or a similar audio recording App, others recorded one line at a time into their phones. The results varied according to the environment, but on the whole we got some quite good material. Towards the end as lockdown eased we were able to get some cast into a studio to record. The mixer and I would remote link in and the actor would be alone in the studio. The advantage of this is firstly the recording quality was much improved and also it freed the actor from having to be engineer as well as talent. Todd AO and Sounds In Sync have now developed a much more sophisticated method of creating clips. Working this way gives you so little control over performance and meant much to-ing and fro-ing to get the correct performance, a frustrating process for all. Once this was done you could fit as normal, and supply to the Mixer who was also now operating from home. The whole approach reduces the ability to properly judge the sound quality and also cuts down on the collaborative nature of the process. I can't honestly see any of these recording methods replacing working in a studio, but it will almost certainly become a common method for getting lines for a temp mix. I could also see it becoming a method of recording ADR for cast with smaller roles who perhaps have a couple of lines to record. The cost saving on studio time may appeal to low budget projects too.”


Hands has been working from home for the most part for over 10 years, so the lockdown didn’t have a massive impact except with regard to recording ADR. However one other difficulty is Loop Group recording. “We are unable to gather a group of actors in a studio like the chickens in ‘Chicken Run’ instead we had each voice actor record at home and then bring all the recordings together. It's slower and less reliable technically, plus the actors have no real on the spot feedback, but we have made it work. It just means you have to spend time writing down in detail

what you want for each scene, what they can and cannot say, and then recording more material if necessary. Final Mixing has been remotely done too, normally all the editors would gather with the Director and Re-Recording Mixer in a studio to work on the mix of the film together, but that's just not been possible. So the Mixer works alone and sends out a mix for review, we get a set of notes to look at, and sift out the notes that refer specifically to our area, attend to them, and send the fixes to the mixer. It's all rather isolated, but we have Skype and Text etc to communicate through if we need to.”


Using an approach that Hands has used for some years now, he begins by making his way through all of the recorded material to ascertain what is likely to require re-recording. “I prepare a 'Worst case list' which allows us to establish just how much time we need to allow and also to get an idea of cast availability early on. At the same time I prepare a Loop Group record list for background characters. Once we have all this in place I work my way through the material again separating out the various mic angles and evening out the levels between audio clips in a scene, and make notes on issues that I can fix with noise reduction or alternative takes. Time has taught me never to get bogged down on the minutia at this stage. Often on a film there will be temp mixes and we need to have the material in shape as fast as possible. I then go over the material again several times fine tuning the tracks, looking for alternative takes to replace noisy bits and applying noise reduction etc I will always try and salvage poor recordings and I've been pretty successful at that. I prefer to record ADR that we are genuinely going to use, rather than as a back up. I am of the opinion that you should make a decision about what you are going to use and stick with it. There is little point recording material that the Director is just not really going to use instead of production. Part of my approach is to establish early on what scenes the Director is particularly precious about and what scenes they are really concerned about. If you have a really badly recorded scene and you can salvage that week one you are gong to earn yourself a huge amount of trust.”


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