Interview with award-winning Sound Engineer, Tom Fennell from Newbury

Tom holding boom over soliders

Tom Fennell is a local lad from Newbury, who left St Bartholomew’s School in 1998 and went on to do a BA in Music. In his late twenties he trained as a sound engineer at the Film & Television School at Beaconsfield and is enjoying a career in sound in the film and TV industry. 

Tom has worked on many famous films such as War Horse, Spectra: James Bond; many Star Wars movies; Harry Potter; the Justice League; and more recently Sam Mendes’s film 1917 which won an Oscar for Sound Mixing.

Adam Quinn, who left St Bartholomew’s School in 2019 was fortunate to catch Tom inbetween films, to ask him how he had managed to find his way in the highly competitive film and TV industry and if he had any nuggets of wisdom!

Adam: What initially inspired you to pursue your career?

 

Tom: A love of music, stories and sound.  And a desire for a career that used those auditory skills.

Adam: How would you describe your job to someone who has no idea what a sound engineer does, and why it is important to the final film?

Tom: My main job is to record useable dialogue from the actors using strategically placed microphones to ensure the dialogue is clean and audible. Traditionally we were called boom operators as we position the microphone at the end of a long boom pole over the camera to get as close as possbile to the actors without getting the mic in the shot (see above me in action on 1917). Today however we use regularly also use radio mics, so our title is increasingly called 1st Sound Assistant instead of Boom Operator.

Secondly, I record any sound effects and atmospheric sounds unique to that moment.

We study the script and anticipate what creative challenges the various scenarios will present. These may be to do with costumes, special effects, locations, scenarios in which special technology may need to be employed to deal with demanding situations for our kit. For example, we may work in challenging environments; 50’C in the desert; underwater; in the humid jungle; or sub-zero temperatures in the Arctic.

This may mean that we need to be very mobile, with thoughts of battery charging, communication, or the range of our radio kit, which we use to transmit microphone signals. We also need to know what clothes to pack!

 

Sunset over the sand dunes when Tom was on set in Jordan for Star Wars Episode 9
Tom on location in Jordan on Star Wars Episode 9
Tom holding his boom microphone dressed for the Arctic weather conditions
From soaring heat to sub-zero temperatures filming in the Arctic!

 

We are responsible, as much as is possible, for creating a quiet environment to achieve that aim of clean dialogue. That can mean being involved in pre-production; in the creation of sets and recces of locations to flag up potential issues on the day of filming; the planning of the location of generators; and the use of noise reduction techniques for locations, costumes, etc. We also sometimes have to supply sounds and music to a scene for the purpose of coordination without affecting our ability to record the dialogue.

We are unique, in that all other departments on set are mainly focussed on the visual aspect of the film. In the Sound Department, we are often reactive and constantly requiring the collaboration of other departments. The construction department helps with creating quiet stages with quiet floors; the Locations and Assistant Directors help to keep the set quiet; we negotiate with the Costume Department to help hide microphones and radio transmitters; we are constantly talking to the Camera, Special effects and Director’s department to see if we can prevent any noise overlap that could affect the dialogue. Often, we are the last department to ‘have our turn’, so good preparation, quick decision-making, strong relationships with other crew members and the cast, and a good humour is basically the basis of our daily experiences.

If we do our job well, we deliver the best possible dialogue for the situation that we have been given, and ideally this means that no additional technical dialogue is needed once the principle photography has finished. Producers are happy, as we have saved them a great deal of money, in not having to call actors back; possibly many months after the original performance. The knock-on effect being the cost of the returning actor, director, and studio time; the technical skills to match the dialogue on the exact moment. Plus you have the ability of the actor to do a good job, revisit the moment and the emotion that may be a million miles away from the character they are in currently involved with.

If the dialogue is clean and synchronised at the time of recoding the photography, it feels and sounds real. If a film has badly replaced dialogue, I often think it just isn’t believable or engaging; somehow it feels incongruous and disingenuous. You can get a sense of this when you stream TV, and the sound and the picture are out of sync – very irritating!

Adam: What distinguishes good sound design from bad sound design? And how does it affect someone’s enjoyment of a film?

Tom: Sound design is a post production job, so occurs after filming. Sound has the power to suggest things that you can’t see; a powerful story device; or immerse you in a strange mysterious world, rather than a cold draughty shed it was filmed in, somewhere off the M25.

Good sound design can be invisible, in that the designers have constructed sounds and atmospheres that didn’t necessarily exist at the time of filming; creating a sense of another world. They remove noises and seamlessly reconstruct moments that weren’t there in the first place; creating a better, cleaner world than the one that really existed when filming. 

Good sound design draws your attention to sounds that perform a dramatic effect, for instance the snap of a twig from an advancing aggressor or a hand going through a chest (simulated by a box of slime), allowing you to still hear the dialogue while focusing your attention on the moment and the story. 

Sound can also help to maintain a sense of journey when what one is seeing is quite uncomfortable. For example, watching a roller coaster while a smooth calming classical song is playing can be quite palatable and relaxing but if the sound is constantly moving it creates a sense of nausea.

Adam: What would your advice be to someone who wanted a career in the film industry, both generally and in sound recording?

 

Tom: Be reliable; listen; be prepared; be cheerful; don’t be afraid to be wrong, you will learn; if something goes wrong, understand why, and understand how to prepare for the next time, learn and move on.  

It can be punishingly long hours and the instability of a freelance life isn’t suitable for some people.  Commitments to clubs, friends and family can be a struggle at times.  An understanding partner is a great help! 

But after a while, with more contacts and colleagues, the irregular working life can be quite a gift at times, especially if you know when the next job is coming. 

Some roles are more regimented than others, some require working in an office, some require the flexibility to travel at short notice, so think about the lifestyle you want to lead.

Tom on location in the Arctic

Adam: Looking at your CV and job history, you’ve been involved in some seriously exciting projects, such as Star Wars Film, Ep 9, and more recently 1917. What is it like being on the set of such massive films?

Tom: Some films can be a lot more fun than others, and it’s not necessarily the better funded ones!

Large studio films can be a lot more militaristic and pressured than small independent projects. On the other hand, the coffee and catering can be much better, and the financing can mean that we are sometimes taken to some extraordinary places, and work with some very talented cast and crew which is a great honour, and extremely inspiring.   

Standing on a sand dune in Abu Dhabi at sunset, after a day that was hotter than anything I’ve ever experienced, watching 20 Star Wars storm troopers pursuing an exquisitely created animatronic alien being chased across the dessert… it may not have been one of the most moving acting performances I’ve ever witnessed, but the nostalgic realisation of something quite special in a totally exotic place, was quite memorable for me!

Adam: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Tom: I’ve had many great highlights, travelling to some beautiful places, but finding a few people in the film industry who I have regularly worked with for the last 10 years has given me some wonderful shared experiences, the ability to feed my family and buy a house, and some wonderful friends while using my ears in a practical job that rarely asks me to wear a suit.  This has been the greatest gift.

Working on 1917 has resulted in my first shared Oscar for Sound Mixing. It was also Production Sound Mixer Stuart Wlson’s first Oscar after five previous nominations for War Horse, Skyfall and three Star Wars movies. 

We also had the honour of receiving an AMPS (Association of Movie Produced Sound) award for 1917. 

 

Oliver Tarney AMPS, supervising sound editor, Stuart Wilson AMPS, production sound mixer , Mark Taylor, re-recording Mixer, Rachael Tate, dialogue and ADR editor, Hugh Sherlock - 1st Assistant, Thomas Fennell - 1st Assistant
Tom holding the Sound Department's Oscar for 1917

On the larger films I’ve been lucky to work on in recent times, we are increasingly having two 1st Assistants in the Sound Department, due to the use of multiple cameras and the expectation to always have fully boomed dialogue as well as radio mics fitted to all cast. This was certainly the case with 1917 as while we only had one camera to contend with, we needed to be able to hear the actors during unusually long takes.  My fellow first sound assistant was Hugh Sherlock (on the left of the trench below).

Adam: How did Sam Mendes’ one continuous shot concept for 1917 impact the work of the sound department?

Tom: Luckily Sam gave Production Sound Mixer Stuart Wilson ten months to plan our approach (see Stuart’s article about this here).  In a normally edited film, if a mic was unusable for some reason, we would obviously strive to get it clean, but know that there would be other opportunities for the editor to find a clean take on the other “coverage’ of that scene (different shots of different sizes or from other angles).  But as 1917 was shot with no picture editing, the sound had to be clean on every take. 

With a constantly moving camera, often in trying acoustic situations, we were not always able to get a boom near to the actors and that is where the radio mics come into their own.

So while Hugh took the lead on set with the booming duties, this freed me up to focus my attentions on the radio micing of the actors.  Even when the actors weren’t saying anything, the ability to hear the strained breathing, or the squelching of the feet on the muddy floor, really helped to tell the tale of the soldiers journey and their emotional state.

The screen shots below from the documentary 1917 Production (Behind the Scenes Featurette) show Hugh booming our two main characters, while I had placed mics on in their helmets, and on their bodies to record the sound of their dialogue and their actions.  

The advantage of the boom microphone is that is sounds very natural, with realistic perspective.  The disadvantage being that it records a lot more of the extraneous sounds of film making, e.g the sometimes unavoidable sound of the grips and crew leading or following with the camera.  

Radio microphones, on the other hand, totally lack natural perspective and are prone to noises like clothing rustle, but when recorded cleanly and mixed skilfully with a good atmos track, they can give synchronous clear dialogue to cinema audiences, from an otherwise noisy situation.

The long trench shot at the end of 1917 required two booms (Hugh on the left, me on the right).

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