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In Conversation with Emma Butt

Photo taken by author.
Photo taken by author.
Photo taken by author.

Emma Butt is a freelance Dubbing Mixer, Sound Editor and ADR recordist. She has over 10 years’ experience in post-production sound, where some of her projects include Vikings and Game of Thrones, for which she received a certificate of merit from the Emmys. On September 24th, Emma visited the Department of Theatre, Film and Television in the University of York, where she delivered a talk on her work. The interview talk was led by Dr Mariana Lopez, Chair of the Audio Engineering Society UK and lecturer for the university.


Q: Let’s start with the basics, could you tell us how you entered the field of sound editing and post-production?

A: Ever since I was young, live sound was what interested me the most. I desperately wanted to be a singer, but I was nowhere near good enough. One time there was going to be a choir performance at my school and I saw all these microphones and speakers being installed, and that opened my eyes to this field. I went to university and studied a course aimed just at sound, very general. At the time there wasn’t anything more specific. But I really enjoyed it, one of my favourite parts was recreating sounds from Tom and Jerry, that was always fun! I then entered the business world as a runner, and soon moved up to be responsible for audio bookings and receptions. Even though the competition was really though; I was always hungry for more, so I was constantly asking for more projects and staying over time. I loved what I was doing, and eventually I was able to climb up the ladder in the field of sound editing and post production.


Q: Was there a project you worked on that you consider to be the one that established your professional career?

A: That’s a tough one, I guess it was the feature film What Richard Did, which became a cult classic in Ireland. It was directed by Lenny (Leonard Abrahamson) who I have a great admiration for, he is such an inspiring director. I got to do ADR recording for the whole film, which was amazing. It was great to have someone I admired ask sincerely for my opinion on aspects of the film. I think that might have been my establishing project.


Q: You’ve worked in a company for 10 years and recently decided to move to freelancing. How was that change for you?

A: Terrifying! It was quite terrifying, but it’s getting easier. The reason I left was because I wanted to progress my professional career into feature films at a faster pace than was being offered at the company, so I started my own thing.  The first two months were completely quiet, but I have been fully booked ever since. I had to do a lot of networking, a lot! It’s something people don’t always enjoy, but you just have to do it, it’s part of the process. Turning to freelancing was scary at first, but I don’t regret it, I’m loving it now!


Q: A lot of ADR recording has to do with working closely to the actors, how do you find that part of the process?

A: It’s funny because what most people don’t realise is that the actor is the most important person in the room in ADR recording. The quality of the clip is down to their performance. If the actor isn’t comfortable, he won’t deliver his lines correctly and if that is the case, the director won’t be pleased and will ask them to do it again, at which point the producer won’t be pleased because they see it as a waste of time. So, part of my job is to make sure the actor feels comfortable enough for them to be able to do their job to the best of their ability. But we have to be quick, it’s a very speedy process and there is a lot of pressure.

Another problem is the timeline of production. ADR gets recorded months after everyone fished shooting on location, so actors often struggle to get back into the character’s mind set. More often than not, in that meantime they will have worked on other projects, where they played characters with different accents. Getting them to the right character mindset is also really important. In terms of helping actors synchronise their lines to the original sound, I typically rely on either queuing system or the listen and repeat method; it really depends on the actor. ADR involves a lot of technical abilities, but it also comes down to social and communicative skills. My job as an engineer also includes making the actors feel comfortable. I will even try to remember their favourite tea and coffee order.


Q: How does the ADR recording process differ if you’re working on a fight scene or a children’s animation? Is there a difference at all?

A: Yes, there is a huge difference! Fight scenes are a particularly difficult aspect to record, mostly because when someone is fighting, you expect to hear movement in their voice. A person’s tone and propagation sound completely different depending on what they’re doing at the moment, and this is especially notable when they are fighting. However, it would be almost impossible to recreate a “real” fight in an ADR recording studio, because if the actor moves like he did on set, the microphone would pick up all this unwanted noise; the rustling in their clothes or the noises from his footsteps. Instead, in order to mimic the struggle situation, what I do is I give them a yoga band which they will play with in order to better approximate the tone of their voice to what it is supposed to sound like. These precautions seem so little in the sense that you don’t think they will make a difference at all, but the results can sound completely different.

When it comes to children’s animation, the process is very different. I get to create a whole new universe. Animation directors are quite flexible when it comes to sound, so I have a lot of creative freedom. I usually try to work closely with the animators and look out for any details they might have included in their work and then something in my brain always clicks. This is my favourite part because I get to experiment a lot. Once, I was working on a project set in outer space where the character travelled to different planets and I was in charge of creating sounds for each of the planets. Another project I worked on was a CBeebies series called Nelly and Nora, where the characters teach kids about the weather. That was also quite fun!

The article below is an attempt to register highlights of this interview which stood out. The content is comprised based on personal notes, not a literal recorded transcription. The talk was an incredibly valuable experience to see live, and this article may be of interest to those that could not attend.