Discovering the art of capturing noise with 1917’s Academy Award nominated sound recordist Stuart Wilson

Stuart Wilson has captured the sound of many a major Hollywood film in the last decade. If you’ve seen it, Stuart probably worked on it.

• Four Harry Potters
• Four Star Wars
• Two James Bonds (Skyfall, Spectre)
• A Tom Cruise film (Edge of Tomorrow)
• A Brad Pitt film (World War Z)
1917 – the recent Golden Globe winning and BAFTA nominated Sam Mendes’ war film

The all access film festival made for film lovers – Cromarty Film Festival 2019
-Cromarty Film Festival 2019

What is a sound recordist

Stuart describes himself as a production sound mixer and sound recordist.

“What I do is record the dialogue during the filming process and when filming ends I hand the sound over to someone else to do the editing.”

But it’s not as simple as just recording dialogue. Stuart explains that one of the main challenges in his job is to capture sound in a way that serves the story.

“A big part of what I do is work on sound in a way that serves the story so that the whole film making effort, the whole telling of the story, is coherent.”

Stuart Wilson has worked in the movie industry for thirty years

An often overlooked but essential aspect of storytelling

What audiences hear in a movie is an essential part of telling the story. And it’s Stuart’s responsibility to make sure that the sound is engaging.

On his latest project, Sam Mendes war epic 1917, Stuart had to confront the camera crew in order to capture a specific part of the action that added immeasurably to the enjoyment of the film.

“They had cameras suspended from wires on computer controlled winches and they zoom around the picture but they’re not used to being too worried about the sound of these things. So when they set it up I said it’s too noisy and they said but there’s no dialogue in this scene, so I replied well there’s breathing and there’s their footsteps in the mud and this is two soldiers going into no man’s land. Their breathing is the only thing keeping the audience’s connection to what they are experiencing.”

Stuart (left) on the set of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse

How Stuart started out in film

Stuart fondly describes how his first recording “gig” was when he turned seven. His parents bought him a cassette recorder and he recorded his birthday party.

Born in Glasgow and trying to break into the film industry at a time when there were only one and a half film crews in Scotland, Stuart got into film by knocking on the doors of production companies and offering to help do whatever was needed.

“I went and knocked on doors of production companies and said can I come out on your shoot and carry boxes and make tea.”

Stuart is BAFTA nominated for his work and has been nominated four times at the Academy Awards

Eventually Stuart got a call to help out on a two day shoot with no one getting paid. Then he got a place on a training course with the Scottish Film Training Trust which led to a four week placement at Penicuik Studios.

“At Penicuik I learnt a little bit about everything. Bit about camera, bit about sound, bit about editing, then the trainees were attached to productions.”

Stuart’s first feature was the irreverent Jewish comedy Leon The Pig Farmer (London, 1992). Speaking to Pro Sound News Europe in 2016 he identified his big break being Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix (2006). Director David Yates brought a new crew in to freshen up the established franchise and Stuart was one of those picked to come aboard.

-stuartwilson.com

Opportunities to get into the film industry today

The route into the industry for wannabe technicians has changed since Stuart started – the Scottish Film Training Trust no longer exists. However Stuart says there is a lot of opportunity for people out there, particularly young people.

“There’s recently been a huge survey done through the BFI, The Film Council and Screen Skills where they assessed the needs of the industry because it’s expanding a lot at the moment and they need more skilled people, so there are quite a lot of traineeships and bursaries available.”

Stuart being interviewed by Don Coutts at the Cromarty Film Festival in 2019

Cromarty Film Festival 2019

Stuart was invited to the Cromarty Film Festival where festival co-founder and TV director of 30 years Don Coutts interviewed him in a talk about sound and film.

When I spoke to Don about Stuart’s work he said that for film technicians and people behind the camera like himself Stuart’s a bit of a celebrity in his own right.

“I met Stuart in 1986 and he’s a very interesting example for us Scottish film technicians of an A-list film technician and in Scotland we have very few.”

Stuart held a talk called the Art of Noise at the Cromarty Film Festival in 2019
The Stables – the venue where Stuart held his talk

Secrets learnt from thirty years in film

Sound is a tricky aspect of production to get right so what has Stuart learnt from three decades of recording?

“I’ve been doing this 30 years and it doesn’t mean it gets any simpler. Every time I put on the headphones the sound is terrible and I think how am I going to fix this. You have to have the fight in you to constantly track down the problem.”

Stuart describes how the spectrum of problems he encounters is massive.

“It ‘s everything. From the sublime to the ridiculous. From really expensive technical equipment to oiling door hinges or screwing down floorboards.”

1917 is in cinemas now.

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