Emma Butt: Secrets of an ADR recordist

Emma Butt is a troublemaker – so she’s been told. The freelance dubbing mixer, sound editor and ADR recordist’s reason for earning this label? For speaking out about the sexism and discrimination she’s experienced firsthand while working in the audio industry. Here, she talks about her route into the world of ADR, working on Game of Thrones, Sex Education and Eastenders, what needs to change in the industry to encourage diversity, and why she’ll keep raising her head above the parapet.

How did you get into ADR (Additional Dialogue Replacement) work?

I’ve been in London for six years now, but I’m from Dublin; I started applying to every single music or post production studio in Dublin. At the time, Screen Scene was looking for runners. The industry back home is so small, so all of us had to know how to do everything. So you have to know how to be a dialogue editor, a sound effects editor, a mixer, and do ADR.

I started recording all of the voices of the characters for kids’ animations, so they started teaching me about ADR. Every single one of the lads that I worked with hated recording ADR because it's really, really stressful. It's not an easy job to do – you're constantly on the go for eight, nine hours a day, and often you don't get a break – you don't even get a chance to go to the bathroom – you just have your head down and you keep going. 

But I just loved being in that studio. They started getting me to do more and more sessions, and they would sit behind me and make sure that I was okay. Eventually they started leaving me to it and I took on clients myself, and it grew organically from there. I got the opportunity to do Game of Thrones, and did that for five seasons, which was incredible. I learned so much from that. 

And then Vikings was at the same time. There were two ADR supervisors: Tim Hands for Game of Thrones and Dale Sheldrake on Vikings. I credit the two of them for teaching me so much about how to interact and make actors feel comfortable to get the best performance out of them. They've been godsends.

I got the opportunity to do Game of Thrones for five seasons. I learned so much from that.

What did your ADR work on Game of Thrones involve, and were you a fan when you started working on it?

Not many people know this, but all of the post production in season one was done at Screen Scene. I remember all of the women in the company watched it and afterwards we were like, ‘This is horrific. I'm never watching this again! It's glorified violence’. But then we all got hooked and I absolutely love it now. 

Doing the ADR, I always got to see the episodes two-to-three months in advance. With the ‘Red Wedding’ episode I actually was very lucky – I didn't record ADR for that as I was on a different job that day. One of the guys that I worked with did the ADR, and I just remember him coming out of the session like, ‘Well, that's this year ruined for me!’ He was so horrified about what he had witnessed in that episode, but fair play to him, he didn't ruin it for any of us!

I worked with many of the Irish actors when they were in Dublin, like Little Finger [Aidan Gillen], Joffrey [Jack Gleeson], Davos [Liam Cunningham], and quite a few of the others. Working with Liam was amazing fun; he used to always come into Screen Scene anyway to do voice overs for commercials. He was always such a lovely, lovely man; he was the best one to work with out of all of them.

I can guarantee you that every actor that comes into a studio to do ADR doesn't project enough.

With all of the sophisticated on-location recording tech available these days, is it common practice for TV shows and films to do ADR on all scenes regardless, or is most audio captured on the shoot?

What usually happens is, with something like Game of Thrones, a lot of the interior scenes will be absolutely fine, but the exterior scenes, especially if they're shooting in Northern Ireland where the weather is absolutely shite…Through one season in particular, one of the Irish actors was doing a scene on top of the mountain, and there is wind everywhere, and it just meant that no matter how good the location recordist was, they were fecked. 

They were battling against the elements. So that was something that had to be done in ADR. Or there's other issues, like there might be generators in the background that create a buzz that you just cannot get rid of in post production, so we need to cover dialogue for that. 

Sometimes it's additional lines that they feel need to be added to the script to help the story, so they'll come in and re-record them in ADR afterwards. But you always try and preserve the location sound, because trying to get an actor back into the headspace of their character and get them back into the voice of their character – if they've got an accent on – is so difficult to do. 

You have to give the actors time. You have to have a really slow-paced ADR session. Some actors can just do it like a flick of a switch where they get back into that headspace and accent straight away, and then with others, it just takes them a little while. 

You always want to try and keep what they've done originally and do the bare minimum in ADR, but if you're battling against the elements, it's unavoidable.

You always try and preserve the location sound; getting an actor back into the headspace of their character is difficult.

What makes a good ADR session?

There's a couple of things that come into play. You have to record in a good studio. Firstly, the room can't be too small, because you got too many reflections, but it can't be too big, because you don't want it to sound like there's too much room. 

The mic position is really, really important. They need to be on-mic. It's okay if they move off-mic slightly – if they're walking and you want to put a bit of movement in it – but most of the time, you need to be bang on-mic and you need to make sure your lav mic position is correct as well. Then it comes down to performance; the actor needs to get the right projection. 

I can guarantee you that every actor that comes into a studio to do ADR doesn't project enough, because they're now in a controlled environment where they're not battling against any other sounds. Even for interior scenes, they're not battling against other people and they're not battling against generators, noise or the buzz of lights. It's a very dead room, so they automatically speak quieter. 

So it's trying to get them to project again like they would have done on set. Trying to get them to get their pitch of voice and their tone right is really tricky. Plus they're trying to get their speed right. Nearly every actor that comes in will listen to a line of dialogue that we're re-recording, and they'll turn around after they've listened to it and be like, ‘Why the hell did I choose that rhythm on the day? Why did I say that line like that? Why did I put that pause there?’ And they have to try and replicate that in the studio.

What ADR work did you do on Sex Education?

I did a bit on season one and season two. That was really, really good as well. We did a lot of the crowd recording for season two for any of the scenes where you see a big crowd in the background. 

At the end of one season there was a school dance, so what happens is you get a group of around 10 actors and they'll come into the studio afterwards and build you what's called a loop group. 

So there might be two background actors in the foreground, but you can see that they're actually talking and they're saying something, so to give the scene a bit of texture and to make it feel more alive and make it feel more real, we'll get crowd actors to voice the extras that we can visibly see talking. When it comes to the final mix, the mixer can push up those voices and give it a bit more texture and a bit more movement. And then I worked with some of the main actors as well.

You’ve also got mixing and sound editing credits on Eastenders. As there are four episodes broadcast a week, are its deadlines very tight?

It is incredibly fast paced. With EastEnders you get a day to do dialogue edits and sound effects edits and then you get half a day to the final mix – it's tough. You're either booked as a sound editor or as a dubbing mixer, and because I do both job roles outside of the BBC, it meant that when I went to EastEnders, I could do both job roles depending on what they needed me for. 

You're usually in for four days, during which you usually have to record ADR for the actors as well. Because the actors are on set and you're working in post production right beside the set, you literally have to down tools in the middle of your day sometimes because the actor has just finished shooting the scene and they might be available for ADR. So they'll come up and record their lines straight away because if you don't catch them, they might not be called back to set for two or three weeks, so you literally just have to grab them when you can!

What is something people would be surprised to learn about your work on Eastenders?

It's a really, really interesting place because it's kind of like a training ground for a lot of directors who want to progress into high end TV drama. That's one of the great things about the BBC that I don't think enough people recognise: they give so many opportunities to new and emerging directors and talents, and they help train them up. 

There's a director that I worked with called Sarah Esdaile, who actually worked in theatre and had never done TV before. EastEnders gave her her first chance, and she directed a block of episodes. They were really impressed by her work so they kept on giving her more, and now she's on Call The Midwife and I have no doubt she will go on to do amazing things. 

So it's really lovely because you get to meet all these incredible people who are starting off their career, and some are very established as well. Because Eastenders is so well loved, you get these directors who've gone on to do incredible things coming back to do EastEnders every now and again.

With EastEnders you get a day to do dialogue edits and sound effects edits and then you get half a day to the final mix.

You’re an advocate for diversity in film and TV and have completed a report on diversity in post production sound through The Sir Lenny Henry Centre for media Diversity – highlighting the lack of diversity and ways this can be changed and improved. What can be done to improve diversity here?

That is such a big question, and a big answer as well. One of the biggest problems is visibility. We don't have enough visibility of women in sound. The Oscar nominations came out recently and there are two women [in sound] on the ballot out of I don't know how many men, and one of them was in location sound, which is great, and the other was in post production sound. 

It's constantly happening that we see all of these award shows announcing the nominees, and it's just a sea of white men; there's no diversity, and until that changes, women and people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds don't necessarily know that this is a career route they can take.

What are the barriers for a more diverse selection of people entering the sound industry?

The film industry in the UK is booming right now. There's so many career opportunities, and we're actually really lacking a lot of skill sets because there just isn't enough talent coming out that can be employed. 

One of the biggest problems is that at school level, there needs to be more education about these job roles and about the possibility that these kids can have a future in these jobs. I do a lot of guest lectures at universities and I've been so impressed with the gender diversity and the black and ethnic minority diversity across students. 

But then the next barrier happens because those students aren't progressing into the industry – and this is where the next change needs to happen.

I get told a lot of the time that I'm putting my head above the parapet, and you do start to worry about your career.

How does this specifically apply to the sound production route?

Sound post production has essentially got rid of the sound assistant role. So your only options really when you leave university are going into a post production house as a runner and progressing your way up, which is a very slow way of doing it, or going out as a freelancer and trying to get onto big budget feature films. 

Big budget feature films are the only ones that still have a sound assistant. So your options when leaving uni are to try and get onto one of these sound crews as a sound assistant and to train up and then stay freelance, which is really, really difficult to go straight from uni without any training. As a sound engineer, it's near impossible. If anybody's managed to do it, I still don't know about them.

We need to start implementing the role of sound assistants on to high-end drama and on to big budget documentary series to make sure that these students – especially women and people from black and ethnic minorities – are getting trained up and are getting the opportunities, because once you have a credit to your name, that's like gold dust. 

That's what helps you get your next job. It's giving them the opportunity to get that first credit, build up a list of contacts, and then getting the training in a supportive environment from someone who has more knowledge than them who can show them the ropes. 

Then they’re set and they’ll be able to progress and go from there. That's why the assistant role needs to come back in, but the industry is reluctant to do that. You always get the excuse of, ‘We don't have the budget,’ when actually, they do. 

It’s a drop in a bucket for a high end TV drama budget – probably less than a camera lens they're using, and still we're seeing pushback on that.

What’s the situation like in post production houses?

A lot of post production houses have ties to universities, so they'll hire their runners directly from university. But what about the kids who want to pursue a career in sound but haven't got the money to go to university? 

They're still going to be as passionate and as driven and want to work really, really hard, but they just can't afford to go to a really expensive university. The post houses need to start looking beyond those universities and look beyond where they're getting their pool of runners from. They also need to start being conscious about who they're hiring, and not just go for the first available candidate.

There needs to be more emphasis put on diversity in their craft and technical teams, because how can a young person from a black or ethnic minority background ever see themselves working in a post house if they don't see someone who looks like them? 

I know that if I'm going to join a team or join a company, I want to know that there's going to be more women there. I'm mixed race, and I want to know that there's going to be someone there who's like me so that I know that I'll fit in and also be comfortable, and I won't feel like I'm going into the lion's den. And that's what needs to change.

A lot more people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds don't speak up because they're afraid for their hard won careers.

Why is it important to speak out about instances of discrimination or sexism, and do the potential ramifications of that concern you?

I get told a lot of the time that I'm putting my head above the parapet, and I try not to think about that too much because you do start to worry about your career. I know there's people out there who don't want to work with me anymore and I know there's people who just consider me a troublemaker.

I was working in live sound at first, and it was the most sexist environment I've ever been in.

The engineer of the venue had a little light for when you're in the midst of a gig and the lights are all down – so it's pitch black – so you can still see the mixing desk. He used to get his little lamp and shine it up at the stairs when girls were walking down to see up their skirts. 

There was me and a guy who was doing work experience in the venue and both of us got treated so differently. I was spoken down to and told that if I wanted to succeed, I needed to start dressing like a man, I needed to cut my hair, and I needed to start acting like a man instead of a woman, and that I was never going to be taken seriously.

I was on the Council for the Association of Motion Pictures and Engineers and I left for certain reasons. I got told privately that a well known sound engineer was having a conversation in the pub about me saying, ‘She left because of women's issues’. 

That's what myself and any other woman who puts their head above the parapet has to deal with: we get talked about behind our backs, we get branded a troublemaker, and you do worry – and I I know that that's the reason why a lot more women don't speak up. 

A lot more people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds don't speak up because they're afraid for their hard won careers. They're worried that if they do speak up, that they're not going to work again; they kind of get blacklisted, and I probably should be more afraid of that.

I'm mixed race and when I was a kid I was very badly racially bullied, and then throughout my career, I've experienced horrible sexism and a one point harassment from someone in a managerial position. And I just think to myself, ‘I don't want the next generation to go through that. I don't want anybody to go through the experiences that I've gone through’. 

I want to do whatever I can and speak up as much as I can to make sure that this industry and the sound departments start to change for the better so that the next generation, who are going to take over from us once we decide to retire, are in a much better, supported situation and they can just focus on their job and not have to worry about sexism, harassment or racism. They can just be the lovely, creative human beings that they are and just do what they love.

I know what my mix is gonna sound like on TV if there's a pair of Genelecs in the studio.

What kit do you rely on to do your job in your home studio?

I have been using Genelecs for 15 years. When I started at Screen Scene, all they used was Genelecs, and when I was in uni, all we had was Genelecs. So I hate it now when I go into a studio and they don't have them, because I'm so used to the sound! I love them so much because I know what my mix is gonna sound like on TV if there's a pair of Genelecs in the studio. I have a pair of 8030s at home and I just don't think there's anything that compares to them.

If I'm doing ADR it has to be in a studio – it can't be at home. If I'm at home, I'm usually doing dialogue editing, sound effects editing or pre-mixing. I always try and final mix in the studio with the client. 

But all sound editing, dialogue, editing and pre-mixing I can do at home. I've got a nice little setup. Everything that I've done has gone out on air, and it sounded great. What I'm doing at home translates really well back in the studio. If I go into a studio and it's not Genelec, I find that it takes me the guts of a day to get used to the sound of the studio.

It's so important as a freelancer that’s going into different studios constantly and mixing in different rooms, to be able to trust that what you're doing is going to translate well when it goes on air. 

It’s a really big deal because it means that my ear adjusts to the room that little bit quicker, and that means that I can start being more confident in the decisions I'm making and the work that I'm doing before a client arrives.