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Inside Killing Eve: Behind the scenes of a TV phenomenon

The hit show’s sound department on the challenges of location recording and how the TV sound bar continues to be raised

An immediate hit with fans and critics alike, spy thriller Killing Eve has become one of the most talked about TV shows in recent history, with accolades bestowed left, right and centre for its impeccable performances and razor-sharp writing. Equally impressive, and indeed challenging, is the show’s technical production, as Daniel Gumble finds out from its award-winning sound crew…

Few shows have captured the imagination in recent years quite like Killing Eve. And that’s saying something, given the golden age TV has been enjoying for the past decade or so. In an era where blockbusting budgets, A-list casts and CGI extravagance have become commonplace on the small screen, the first half of 2019 has already treated TV audiences to new series of Game Of Thrones, Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, Jessica Jones, Black Mirror,  Good Omens, Catch-22 and Chernobyl to name but a few. All of which makes the success of Killing Eve even more remarkable.     

In essence, it’s a show that has taken the fundamental principles of great story-telling – impeccable writing, endearing characters and peerless performances – and subverted them to create something that is not only unique in today’s TV landscape, but can also be seen, and indeed heard, over the squall of fire-breathing dragons, explosive special effects and sparkling Hollywood sheen of its competition. Like the first series in 2018, the second series of Killing Eve, which concluded at the end of July, has drawn plaudits from across the globe, scooping numerous awards and proving a major hit once again with viewers.

For the uninitiated, the show is based around the relationship between British Intelligence investigator Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and takes place across an array of glamorous European city locations.And while praise continues to be heaped upon its writing team and star turns from Oh and Comer – the show won BAFTAs for Best Actress (Comer), Best Supporting Actress (Fiona Shaw) and Best Drama Series – equally crucial to the show’s success is the work of its sound crew. In April of this year, Killing Eve won the sixth annual AMPS (Association of Motion Picture Sound) award for excellence in sound for a television drama, recognising the importance of ‘clear dialogue and impressively crafted sound in any feature film or television drama’. According to location sound mixer Steven Phillips, Killing Eve’s second outing was all about refining the process, as opposed to any major upscaling on the work carried out in series one.

“We had to accommodate the fact that the first series was so successful, which made shooting on the streets difficult; ADs had to mask out paparazzi or people walking down the street so they couldn’t interfere with the shoot or see spoilers,” he tells PSNEurope. “Everyone knows the cast now and we don’t want to hear people walking past and saying ‘Oh wow, it’s her of Killing Eve’.”

For Phillips, the key challenges with location mixing on the show remain the same – battling with the bustling sounds of the busy European city locations and clearly capturing dialogue.

“Sometimes it feels like trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, because we film in some especially noisy locations, like London, Rome, Paris and Bucharest,” he continues. “When you see cities on screen you have to hear them too, but not too loudly. So we have to get rid of most of the sound and provide the post-production team with as clean a dialogue track as possible, then they can cut the sound to the picture wherever they want. One of our tricks is to put up an atmos mic, so we can provide a clean track of traffic background or an aircraft going across. We capture all that out of the ordinary sound so that we have a clean effects track that can be put underneath. This way, we can keep that atmospheric sound without making a big thing of it. This really helps the guys in post-production.

“We also shoot a lot of two-camera stuff, but we have limited shooting time, so sometimes we are forced to shoot ‘tight and wide’ (the camera teams might film with 135 or 180 and 50 or 25 mm lenses at the same time). This means we can’t get anywhere near the actors for the really tight shots, so we radio mic everyone. Radio mics have their own challenges and on Killing Eve some of the costumes are really noisy or tight-fitting, so hiding the mic pack can prove difficult. Villanelle is famous for her costumes, and in the first series I had second assistants working exclusively with the costume department and cast to figure out where to put mics, with some being sewn into the outfits or placed in the cast members’ hair.”

The show’s international feel poses different yet equally difficult challenges for supervising sound editor and dialogue editor Tom Williams, whose role entails editing all location sound and recording and editing all ADR and crowd sound.“My biggest challenge is the multi-lingual main cast and loop group,” he says. “I was working with a voice coach in ADR to get the pronunciation right, while still trying to preserve the magic of the performance. The female prison scene was fun, with six hyped up Russian ladies in the studio! Preserving the dramatic scenes (the episode one hospital murders are brutal) is very important, while also adding humour where possible. For example, Villanelle loved her food and we reflected this with exaggerated eating Foley. This was straight of the bat with the first ice cream scene. Historically, you don’t see assassins eating much!”

Another significant task for the sound crew was achieving consistency in sound across the show’s various settings. And, as re-recording mixer Nigel Heath explains, it was crucial that its audio component was not only even from scene to scene, but from series to series.

“The second season was very much a continuation of the first season,” Heath elaborates. “With a much publicised new writer onboard, I was mindful of the potential for critics to compare the second season to the first. For that reason, I worked hard to ensure sonic consistency so that the ‘box set’ audience would feel it just as a continuation.”Heath also highlights the soundtrack as one of the key elements to the show’s success. “I work in conjunction with my amazing assistant (now co-mixer, Brad Rees), and my job is to blend together all the incoming ingredients from the various sound editors involved in the project – dialogue, sound effects, sound design, Foley and, of course, music.     

“The producers and directors had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve with the soundtrack from the start, and the styling was soon ‘solidified’ during the post- production of series one, episode one. The score was by David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia and, together with music supervisor Katherine Grieves, they loaded the show with awesome sounds.”

He continues: “The score and commercial music was often treated in the mix to appear to be coming from various sources in or out of vision, as is usual, but we pushed that kind of thing – probably as far as one can go on Killing Eve.”

Though delighted to see the bar being raised in the realm of TV sound production, Heath does express a slight concern with the fact that the great work being done behind the scenes may be lost on those consuming shows through less than ideal audio platforms, such as flatscreen TVs and mobile devices.

“It’s great to see more ‘near feature film’ values appearing in TV work when it comes to sound,” he tells us. “But I worry that sometimes it’s easy to forget that most punters hear it on very basic kit in a non-ideal domestic listening environment. To me, it’s slightly ironic that as methods of sound acquisition and distribution have improved, an increasing number of devices used for the actual reproduction of said sound have become less sonically satisfactory.”

However, despite of the dichotomy between premium audio and far from premium listening devices, sound effects editor/designer on Killing Eve, Darren Banks, insists there is no room for anything other than the very highest production values in television today. “The standard of TV drama sound is rising all the time,” Banks tells PSNEurope. “The line between a high end drama soundtrack and movie soundtrack has become increasingly blurred in regards to quality and content in the last few years. Alongside that, viewers’ expectations have also risen, and so has the scrutiny.”

For Phillips, the increased scrutiny and closing of the gap between film and TV sound is a testament to the great work being done not just on Killing Eve but across the medium as a whole.

“Everything on TV is driven by what’s done in film,” he states. “It’s just that we have less time. The number of radio mics used, along with the multi-track machines and multiple headsets handed out to production now, is an indicator of how important sound has become.

“In the ‘90s, a TV drama might have had a sound crew with two people. Now it’s three or four trained crew. The gap between TV and film is severely narrowed now. The budgets and timeframes aren’t as big, but we use pretty much identical kits.”

With a third series now in the pipeline, the Killing Eve audio team is already relishing the prospect of reconvening and building on its formidable sonic achievements to date.

“On the second series, nearly everyone came back, and it was a really nice atmosphere,” Phillips concludes. “We had a good dialogue with the editors and production; they were supportive and it’s not always the case that you get that level of understanding. We were working as part of a bigger team where everyone was trying to help each other. That’s why it was wonderful to win the AMPS award and I’m thankful and honoured that the work of the entire sound team has been recognised.”