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‘Sound was my first love’: Chatting to award-winning 1917 sound mixer Stuart Wilson

The Oscar and BAFTA winning sound mixer for 1917 talks his early love of sound and working on the world's best known films

PHOTO CREDIT: SPECTRE © 2015 Danjaq, LLC, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

Scots-born Stuart Wilson’s credits stretch back to the early 1990s. In the 2000s he began working with maverick, genre-hopping director Michael Winterbottom, as well as on international features including four films in the Harry Potter series. Wilson then became involved with two of cinema’s biggest franchises: James Bond and Star Wars. In 2016 he was nominated for Academy, BAFTA and Association of Motion Picture Sound awards for his work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while AMPS also listed him for 007’s latest, Spectre. Last night, however, he picked up the covetable Sound Mixing award at The Oscars for his work on 1917, as well as winning a BAFTA for the film’s sound earlier this month. Here, we revisit an interview from 2016 with the sound industry’s most sought-after sound recordist…

Was sound and films a childhood interest?
Sound was my first love. I was interested in it before I was interested in cinema and films. When I was seven my Dad bought a cassette recorder and I recorded my birthday party on it. After that I would make tapes by recording from the radio and TV. When my Dad got a cassette radio with a built-in microphone, that added the ability to record feedback, mix it with the World Service and edit tape to tape.

How did you get into film sound recording?
On leaving school I thought I would work in a recording or TV studio. I knocked on the doors of production companies asking if I could go out on a shoot. Eventually somebody said they were doing a freebie for someone and did I want to work on it? I worked as a trainee for a year in Scotland then worked professionally for another year in various sound jobs. But the work wasn’t very creative so I applied to the National Film and Television School (NFTS), where I spent three years. That’s where I knew I’d found my spot.

What attracted you to location work rather than working in post or anything else?
I was doing both location and post work and it was great creatively to see something through from script to final mix, but I never learned to take shortcuts when sound editing. Being on a shoot suits me more than the cutting room where I’d always want to do a bit more and a bit more. These were small films with the same circle of people, so this, combined with wanting a shot at bigger things, made me decide to concentrate on location work.

You first worked with Michael Winterbottom on 24 Hour Party People (2002) and made six more films with him. Is it common for directors to have ongoing relationships with production sound mixers?
Some are able to have regular relationships, because there isn’t as many sound recordists as directors. But a filmmaker might only make a film every two years, so you can get out of sync with people. Michael Winterbottom is so prolific, however, that he’s able to keep his core team and tries to get the same people. Working with him was an important relationship and he’s been a big influence on me. When I first met Michael he wanted to be able to look anywhere with a hand-held camera, for the cast to improvise and change things each take. We filmed in real locations with real people and no control of noise. That drives you to find solutions, be brave and try things people didn’t do. Everyone had to be miced, I had to multitrack, have a portable rig ready and plan ahead so the next location was already pre-rigged. A lot of the techniques I’ve developed come from being pushed by Michael Winterbottom.

You’ve made two Bond films – Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) – with Sam Mendes. Was coming on to such a long-running series daunting?
My big break was working on the Harry Potter films with David Yates. He was the new director for the fifth of the series and he wanted to bring in new people because he was coming into an established franchise. Similarly with Bond, Sam Mendes came into an existing set-up. He didn’t want to be the new guy so he wanted to bring in other new people.

Is working on films like Bond and Star Wars more difficult because of the action involved?
Sam Mendes is all about the performance and likes to get stuff while filming. He doesn’t want to let things go to post. Sam takes a lot of time to work with the actors and 50 percent of it is the voice. I suppose he’d be disheartened if he thought he’d have to do things again in the dubbing suite. So sound has to be part of the prep. I get together with the special effects supervisor to talk about what they want to achieve. If we need fans for wind I’ll record a test and send it to post to see if they can filter out the noise. Often it can’t be done so we’ll hire an industrial blower, put it outside and bring in air through pipes. It’s down to me to me to sort something out before it becomes a problem.

You’ve received several Oscar and BAFTA nominations in recent years, including for Skyfall and War Horse (2011), and now you’re part of the teams nominated for Spectre and The Force Awakens. What’s your reaction to that?
I don’t think it can get better than this. It’s such a privilege to be part of the teams that have made these great films. It was a bit disappointing that Spectre was overlooked for the Oscar and the BAFTA; it was a massive achievement from the production side. I’m really happy with the track on The Force Awakens; what the post guys have done sounds fantastic. I heard about the nomination for The Force Awakens yesterday and I’m busy doing prep for Star Wars: Episode VIII, so I haven’t quite let the excitement sink in today while I’m trying to make sure the next one turns out well.