Sound Chat #5 - Gwen Whittle (Sound Design)

I am here with Gwen Whittle from SkyWalker Sound. Gwen is a supervising sound editor with a very strong background of dialogue editing and ADR recording along with running the whole show. Her credits include films such as A.I, Iron Man, Fight Club, Gone Girl, Saving Private Ryan, Her and many many more. This promises to be an excellent chat:

Hi Gwen, thanks for taking the time to do this chat we me, firstly what the atmosphere like working at SkyWalker Sound and when did you start working there?

I started at Skywalker in 1988 (Paleolithic era as my kids would say!). It remains as bucolic and lovely a place to work as it was then. My editing room looks out over a vineyard, a small lake (Lake Ewok) and tree covered hills. It’s rather nice. Working at Skywalker has the feel of a large family with lots of second cousins and in-laws. We support one another and there is a healthy sense of friendly competition, which keeps us sharp and striving to be better at our jobs.

You started with Dialogue editing on blockbusters such as Saving Private Ryan, Mission Impossible and Titanic. What is your process for laying out your session and keeping track of all the different characters?

Editing production dialogue is all about the air. We are the keepers of the air. I edit so that takes with similar air/noise issues are on the same tracks to make it easier to premix later. I try to make it so that the production rolls as smoothly as possible, using air fill to make the scene play without a jarring jump or anything that reminds you that what you are watching is not real. Working now is much for fluid than in the Mag days of course, so it is easy to move things during the mix for the ease of the mixer. Every mixer has their own style as well, so if you know whom you will be working with, it’s nice to set things up the way they like it.

Before you hand over to the mixing stage what amount of noise reduction and processing did you do?

Again, every mixer is different. Some love it if you de-noise before you get to the mix, others would rather do it themselves. If I do any de-nosing I always keep a cut version of the original available to go back to if the mixer does not like what I have done. I check with the mixer before I start editing to know how they would like it prepped. I often do a quick de-noising while I am ADR cueing to see if a take is salvageable or beyond hope.

When it comes to premixing I always aim for normal level speech to sit about -20. Are you just playing it by ear or do you have set markers on the meters in mind for the dialogue?

I use my ears 

Moving forward you predominantly worked in ADR editing and supervising for Minority Report, Hulk and AI Artificial Intelligence. Was this just a natural progression from dialogue editing?

I am not sure if it is a natural progression or not, it’s just what happened to me. I really like both. Dialogue editing is very computer, detail intensive and with ADR you get to talk to people and interact with the creatives that made the film. Doing both is a lovely balance,

ADR is a bit of an elephant in the room, especially for me as a sound recordist, are you mainly replacing unusable production sound or is it more for story and performance?

Good Dialogue and ADR editors are masters of illusion. The trick is to stick to the original performance, yet make it clean – either through alternate takes, or great ADR. If the picture editor and director are listening in the mix, and nothing catches their ear as being different from the guide track that they have been working with for months – other than that is sounds clearer and better – you’ve succeeded. To me, if the production sound is appropriate to the scene then it should be used. If the background noise is intrusive, the actors are inaudible, the sound is inappropriate to the scene (car back-up beeps on the Titanic for example) and there are no production alts available to preserve the performance, ADR can save a scene. ADR is a tool and a very powerful one. Directors should not be afraid to use it. And if they are, they should give the production recordist time on the set to make sure what is recorded is as good as it can be.

Lots of people are always interested on a percentage of production to ADR dialogue in major films. Obviously ADR for The Simpsons Movie was nearly 100%, Is there a figure for your typical action film and drama?

Action films, Sci-fi films tend to have more ADR than other films because the sound of all the fans, special FX equipment etc tend to make a lot of noise….and everyone knows that the future has only very pretty soundscapes with no traffic roar :-).

You have now been a Supervising Sound Editor for Avatar, Tron: Legacy, Epic and Oblivion (along with many others) What are the day to day decisions and tasks you have?

As a supervisor I make sure there is enough money in the budget to pay the crew, and that the crew hired is the perfect one for the job. I coordinate with the post supervisors about ADR, temp mixes, schedules, equipment etc to make sure we are covered financially and staff-wise for everything. I collaborate with the sound designer, and the editors so we are all in agreement as far as the sound of the film is concerned. I also make sure everyone is fed during the mix :-).

With the massive films like Avatar there is more than one Supervising sound editor, how it everything delegated and on Avatar what did you look after?

On big films with more than one supervisor, One usually handles more of the FX/foley and the other wrangles the dialogue and ADR. On Avatar, I was the Dialogue side of things, but it is never split straight down the middle. We communicate all the time, and share the responsibilities and delegate depending on who has more time to handle whatever is most pressing;

Finally, what one piece of knowledge that you have gained over your career so far would you have loved to know at the start of your journey?

Learn to listen and use what you learn :)

Thanks so much for your time and am looking forward to hearing your work on Tomorrowland.

Tell us all what you thoughts of this Sound Chat in the comments below and continue the conversation, until next time.